It didn't take long for me to find something on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) - a black and white montage of moving images of a metropolitan skyline with the name "Sidney Poitier" overlaying. Of course I had to pause to see what this movie was. I've seen my share of Poitier films, and this didn't look like anything I'd seen before.
Right next to Poitier's name was "Anne Bancroft," which was soon followed by the film's title, "The Slender Thread."
I was right, I hadn't seen it.
As the intro credits kept rolling, I was treated to a cool, sometimes ominous jazz score that accompanied the crisp, glorious black and white images of a metropolitan city, which I soon learned was Seattle, once an aerial shot of the Space Needle landmark showed up on screen. Included in the series of images were shots of Sidney's character, in a convertible automobile, driving through the city with a tempered glee. I remember nodding my head in unison with the music, as I took in the sumptuous monochromatic cinematography. It just worked for me - the dance between the images on screen and the music coming from my TV speakers. It all felt strangely modern, even though I knew it was a 1965 production.
Regardless, I was hooked instantly.
Moments later, as the credits wound down, I learned 2 things that would cement my decision to watch the film instead of working on my screenplay:
1. The film score was composed by none other than Quincy Jones, who was 31 at the time - the 3rd film that he'd been given the opportunity to act as composer on, and a fine job he did with it..
2. As is standard industry practice, the very last opening credit often belongs to the film's director whom I discovered was none other than the late Sydney Pollack, who just passed away a week ago. As I mentioned in my brief remembrance of him on the day he died, I'm a fan of his work, both in front of and behind the camera. This was Pollack's feature-film debut! He was 30 at the time.
So, imagine my growing excitement when it all settled within me that I was about to watch a Sidney Poitier film I hadn't seen before, co-starring Anne Bancroft (AKA Mrs Robinson from The Graduate), directed by first-time feature director, Sydney Pollack, and scored by Quincy Jones, his third composer credit. Interestingly, all 4 of them were in their 30s when they made the film. Something about that tickled me.
More interesting connecting facts: both Anne Bancroft and Sidney Poitier had already won Oscars prior to making this film - Bancroft, best actress in 1963; Poitier, best actor in 1964. And guess who presented Poitier with the award during the ceremony that night at the Oscars? Anne Bancroft of course!
In The Slender Thread, a lone student volunteer at a suicide clinic (Poitier) must keep a desperate woman (Bancroft) on the phone long enough, as the police try to trace her location in order to save her from taking her own life.
It plays out like a thriller in the "Hitchockian" mold, although not quite Hitchcock (there is only one). However, as I watched it, I remember being reminded of Hitchock's Rope, a film notable for its single location (much of Slender takes place at the suicide clinic with Poitier on the phone), taking place in real time (Slender mimics this as well).Time is of the essence in Slender Thread. Will this untrained volunteer be able to keep the woman on the phone long enough? Will the police be able to track her down before she dies? You can probably guess how it ends, after all it's a studio picture, but the journey is worthwhile.
It's not Poitier's best performance, but we are treated to his trademark business-like intensity that doesn't always work well in this particular film. Luckily it's not too distracting. I was still able to enjoy it for 98-minutes. It's not necessarily a "Poitier film," since he shares screen time with Bancroft and a peripheral cast of recognizable names and faces (although at the time they were mostly unknowns), but he commands your attention when he is on screen. His earnestness draws you in, as it seems like he took much pleasure from portraying his character.
Bancroft is believable as an ailing 30-something year old suicidal woman, although, Pollack chose to keep her character invisible during most of the phone call with Poitier. We hear her voice, but we don't see her. Instead, Pollack incorporates several flashbacks during which Bancroft's character retells her story to Poitier's volunteer over the phone - essentially, recapping the events that led up to her current suicidal state. I won't go into detail as to what those events were, but suffice it to say that she kept a secret from her husband - a secret he soon discovers, with devastating consequences. It is through these flashbacks that we meet and get to know her fragile character.
Race isn't at all an issue in the film, and really didn't need to be. Poitier's role could have been played by anyone, as could have Bancroft's. I think those 2 facts added to the air of modernity I felt from the film. I would expect that it was probably quite progressive for its time (1965). I can also imagine how exciting this must have been for audiences at the time to have 2 stars, both whom had just won the industry's highest honor, (Bancroft 2 years prior, and Poitier the previous year), together in a film, even though they never appear on screen together, given the film's plot, which could have been disappointing to that same audience, in the end.
The story (which was based on real life events) obviously didn't lend itself to a romance of any sort between the two leads, so there weren't any opportunities to exploit the sexuality of the characters, or any attraction they might have felt to each other otherwise. Given that their entire relationship exists solely from one end of the slender thread to the other, connecting them, both characters never meet each other in person. Although as the clock ticks towards her potential end, Poitier's character learns much more about her than she does about him, since he has the police on his side, as they work together trying to trace her whereabouts, giving him a slight upper hand in what feels like a tennis match between the two, as he uses his limited psychiatric knowledge of suicidal patients (after all he's just a student volunteer) to engage her as long as he can, and she does her best to maintain some secrecy, keeping him in the dark, even though she clearly needs him to save her.
If you've seen a Pollack film, one thing I think you'd remember most is just how polished his films usually are. There's a tidiness to them that never escapes me, more so than a lot of other filmmakers, even in those films of his that don't register highly on my critical scale. This film is no different, even though it was his first. It's just really "clean," for lack of a better phrase - very well shot (he's not one to experiment with the camera or atmospheric lighting, but the work is solid); it's fairly-well paced and edited, although I think it could lose about 10 minutes of its running time, but a minor quibble. And, aside from Poitier's infrequent over-acting, it's mostly well acted, both the starring and supporting cast, which included Telly Savalas (pre-Kojak), Ed Asner, and Steven Hill (former Law & Order star) - all 3 looking very young and virile! Pollack, an actor himself, has always been known as an actor's director, and even though this was his first feature film, and he was working with 2 Oscar winners, I can tell that he was in command of his cast and crew, and the entire production.
Overall, it's standard studio fare. I was mostly entertained, and can't say that I learned much from the experience. No poignant message to be delivered, no subversions, no calls to action... rather just a mostly taut drama/thriller from a first-time feature-film director who would go on to direct many more. Of course, watching Sidney Poitier was a bonus. This is the first and only time that he and Pollack worked together - at least in a director/actor relationship. Actually, if I didn't see Poitier's name on the marquee, I probably wouldn't have stuck around to watch the entire film, and instead would have turned off the television and worked on my screenplay! No regrets though :o)
I'd give it 3 1/2 out of 5 stars. It's available on DVD for those interested.Here's the trailer for The Slender Thread: