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Actor and acting teacher Sydney Pollack became a director by assisting Burt Lancaster on John Frankenheimer's movies; by 1964 he had directed a number of TV shows and was leaving acting behind. His first feature The Slender Thread is typical of Pollack in that it's a class act all the way, a Paramount film starring top stars Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft. Although some might consider this an expanded TV subject set up as an actor's showcase, the intimate drama poses an interesting problem bound to bring attention to the director's role: although the two main characters develop a close relationship, they never actually meet.
College student Alan Newell (Sidney Poitier) shows up for a volunteer shift at a new Suicide Hotline telephone intervention center, relieving his supervisor Dr. Joe Coburn (Telly Savalas) for the evening to see his family. No sooner has Alan sat down than he receives a call from housewife Inga Dyson (Anne Bancroft), who reports that she's just taken an overdose of sleeping pills and has called to have somebody to talk to while waiting to die. Alan tries not to panic and keeps Inga on the phone, while he asks the phone company to trace the call. That's a tall order, as a technician must first drive across town to a switching facility. With Dr. Coburn looking on, Alan hears Inga's full story. She's depressed about her crumbling relationship with her husband, fisherman Mark (Steven Hill), who has discovered that their teenaged boy may not be his. While the police stand ready to rush aid to Ms. Dyson when and if she is located, Alan fights his own frustration and the fear that he may be saying the wrong things to the woman. Her identity and home address are traced as the Coast Guard rushes Mark back from the high seas. A doctor predicts that only minutes remain until Inga falls into a deadly coma. The police rush to her house -- and discover that she's not there. She's gone to a hotel to die, and nobody knows where.
Long a TV favorite, The Slender Thread is a pleasing, human interest- oriented thriller that found many more fans by broadcast than in theaters. Both Poitier and Anne Bancroft had recently won Best Acting Oscars, which perhaps explains why Bancroft wasn't nominated for her absorbing performance as the depressed, heartbroken woman committed to a suicide bid. Yes, the show fits into the "we're all in this together" subgenre of optimistic liberal dramas, but no particular political or social lesson is being pushed. "People ought to help people" is the simple but effective message.
By 1965 B&W was being phased out. Pollack uses extensive second unit work on Seattle locations to give the show a feeling of naturalism and immediacy. If it were produced for TV or the stage, the story could be performed on one set, with Bancroft isolated near her telephone; if the flashback scenes were presented solely in dialogue, the movie could be a radio show, like the original Sorry, Wrong Number. Director Pollack instead opens the show up, with a very long title sequence filmed from the air that shows us all of Seattle (making sure that we see the Space Needle, so we know where we are). Mark Dyson's fishing boat gives us some nice views of the Marina, and Inga does some wandering on an overcast beach while pondering her problems.
Sidney Poitier plays a good man under pressure, as was usual for him all through the 1960s. As nothing in the script refers to Alan Newell's skin color, he's in modern superman mode -- just another guy coping with a big problem, who we know will eventually prevail. No Poitier movie of this time could do without him flashing a giant satisfied smile at the finish. 1 The only strain on the performance (or Pollack's direction thereof) occurs when Alan throws a couple of mini-tantrums during the phone ordeal. The character becomes even more precise in his dialogue, not less. It's an acting grandstand.
Anne Bancroft, however, is in a position to paint a very impressive, rounded portrait of a woman in a depressive state of despair. Most actors wear out their welcome after only a few minutes of moping, but our concern for Bancroft grows steadily. She made a mistake and hid a secret from her husband, an untruth that to her does not invalidate their feelings, their marriage or their relationship with their son. It's a very womanly way of seeing how relationship problems work out -- if no one is harmed and the love is true, what's the difference? Inga Dyson is not prepared for her husband's almost violent reaction, his misplaced feelings of betrayal and distrust.
Even so, The Slender Thread does not promote Inga as a pathetic victim. Her son is okay, even if he's not going to be a great source of understanding. Marc Dyson wants to feel differently, but his closed-off rejection makes Inga feel profoundly abandoned. The script almost sabotages the honesty of Inga's character by interjecting a very touchy-feely flashback in which she rushes to help some children save a wounded bird on the beach. She hopes to raise her spirits by a womanly act of healing but is yet again struck by cruelty and indifference. To the film's credit, we don't get the feeling that this incident is supposed to be what pushes her over the edge. When Mark and Ing are trying to 'fix' their situation they go to a discotheque, a scene that now seems way too long. But it does communicate the painful experience of taking one's at-risk relationship to the wrong place. The Dysons don't need to forget their problem, they need to be comfortable with each other and repair it.
Bancroft's sense of isolation is what makes the film work. A sub-message might be that human connections are necessary to make life bearable. When Inga is cut off and made to feel unworthy, severe depression can't be far behind. Interestingly, the conclusion makes a valid point about Inga's tentative rescue. No easy-out, "it's all better now" finish for this picture. 2
The latter part of the movie turns into a race against time as various attempts to locate Inga don't pay off and her voice on the slender thread of the phone line is starting to trail off. Ed Asner is one of the policemen trying to locate her. He discovers that she's in a large hotel packed with a rowdy convention, and nobody knows which room she's in.
Stirling Silliphant's intelligent screenplay doesn't go for cheap suspense thrills or celebrate a hero who goes the extra mile to locate Inga. That in itself is encouraging/nostalgic, now that we have complicated 911 call systems that every so often somehow result in desperate callers being 'ignored to death'. Interestingly, the original story comes from a magazine article written by Shana Alexander, the newswoman whose name still rings a bell with viewers of TV's 60 Minutes. Shana was the female half of a mini-debate feature called Point/Counterpoint, where every week her liberal viewpoint would be pooh-poohed by the insufferable James J. Kilpatrick. Saturday Night Live fans may remember the Jane Curtin/Dan Aykroyd parodies, in which Dan would respond with the phrase, "Jane, you ignorant slut." Shana's then- husband Stephen was the producer of The Slender Thread.
Olive's Blu-ray of The Slender Thread is an impeccable transfer of this attractive mid-'60s title. I've never seen it in its widescreen aspect ratio before and can report that the cropping better focuses our attention on the acting of Poitier and Bancroft. The HD encoding lets us admire Loyal Griggs' unfussy interiors and expressive misty scenes in the seaside flashbacks. The flyover shots of Seattle might be of interest to locals interested in getting a good look at their city 50 years ago.
As with almost all Olive titles, a standard DVD edition is available as well. And as is unfortunately the reality with home video in 2012, there are no extras and no subtitles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Slender Thread Blu-ray rates:
1. Well, there's always Poitier's lousy western, Duel at Diablo.
When all turns out for the better, Alan is asked whether he wants to meet Inga, and he says that he doesn't need to. It's an interesting choice. First, Alan isn't looking for thanks or gratitude. He's acknowledging that their 'relationship' was professional and not intended to be the start of a friendship. Very mature, especially when a producer might prefer a big uplift, a feel-good meeting scene. Two, it would be false to 'celebrate' a situation that for Inga is far from resolved. Her problems have not gone away and a lot of work remains to put her life together. A conventional film would have the crisis "cure" Mark's doubts, which is of course unlikely.
Third, there's the angle that most 1965 moviegoers would bring to the theaters with them. There's always the chance that Inga might be repulsed to discover that Alan is black. The film never raises this issue, but the audience is surely thinking about it. That's why Poitier's film roles as a black everyman superman were socially constructive: if the invisible racial barrier were to be broken, whites needed exposure to positive black role models.
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T'was Ever Thus.