Sunday 17 August 2008

The Slender Thread (1965)

Sidney Poitier was 38 in 1965, which makes him just older than me, but in The Slender Thread he's playing a student in Seattle called Alan Newell. There doesn't seem to be much attempt to pretend that he's in his late teens so I hope that he's supposed to be a mature student. It really doesn't matter though as this isn't a school drama and Newell starts the film by cycling away from his college at the end of the day. What really matters is that he's also a volunteer at a crisis clinic and tonight he has to handle a call from a suicidal woman who claims that she's already taken an overdose of barbiturates.

She's Inga Dyson, she's played by Anne Bancroft and it's her story that provides our story, told in flashback as Newell gets her to talk about herself. This is partly to understand her reasons and partly to keep her on the line until a trace can be made on the line, and it's the heart of the film. What makes this most powerful is that Newell may mean well but he's no expert. He flounders around trying to find what will get Inga to open up to him, sometimes saying the right thing but sometimes the wrong thing, making a difference but making mistakes. And all the time, time is running out.

This is a tight little story, unique in that the two lead characters, who spend much of the film talking to each other, never appear together in person. There can't be too many instances like that in cinematic history, only films with DJs and switchboard operators and long distance romances. Anyway Poitier and Bancroft had an important meeting only a couple of years earlier when she presented him with the first Oscar given to a black man, for his performance in Lilies of the Field. The connection between them in this film is solid though, as hits home hard when the phone line between them drops. Suddenly we realise that we've been hanging on the phone with Inga Dyson just as Newell has.

It was written by Stirling Silliphant, as suggested by a presumably factual article in Life magazine by Shana Alexander. I'm guessing that the prominent sign on the wall in the crisis centre is a focus of the article: 'Every two minutes someone attempts suicide in the USA'. It's directed by Sydney Pollack, who hadn't yet won his two Oscars for Out of Africa because this was his first feature as a director. He had been making episodes of TV shows for a few years and obviously had ideas building up in his brain because there are a few scenes here that feel like a debut director doing it how it should be done. The lighting at the end of the disco scene is a great example and presages MTV by a good couple of decades.

There's able support from people like Telly Savalas and Steven Hill, but only two people really have substantial screen time and both Poitier and Bancroft are excellent. It's good to see Poitier in something other than a race drama: the fact that he's black has precisely nothing to do with his part here. Bancroft spends the entire film in various stages of fragility but never overdoes it. She also talks, especially early on, with a detached clarity that reminds me of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

HAL cropped up a little later as another obvious comparison when the phone company try to trace her call and the tech walks up and down the many huge banks of switches at the exchange. I've worked in phone company buildings that have more modern remnants of these things, which are now of course obsolete, and these rooms always give an impression of scale. I wonder if Kubrick had the same thought when he put together his film about scale only a few years later. And talking of obsolescence, it's fascinating to see how long it takes to trace the call. With modern technology, this film would be a short.

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