Throughout the week, we'll be celebrating the 90th birthdays or both Sidney Poitier (February 20) and Harry Belafonte (March 1), recalling past work (especially their lesser known films) on this blog and on social media (see yesterday's Porgy & Bess post to start).
Sidney Poitier starred in this 1965 film with Anne Bancroft - a film that rarely gets mentioned during discussions of Poitier's oeuvre.
Titled "The Slender Thread," as the intro credits roll, you're treated to a cool, sometimes ominous jazz score that accompanies the crisp, sumptuous black and white images of a metropolitan city which you soon learn is Seattle, once an aerial shot of the Space Needle landmark shows up on screen.
Included in the series of images are shots of Poitier's character in a convertible automobile, driving through the city with a tempered glee.
You might actually find yourself nodding your head in unison with the music, as you watch the dance between the images on screen and the music coming from your TV speakers. It all feels strangely modern, even though you know it's a 1965 production.
Regardless, you'll likely be hooked instantly.
2 items of note:
1. The film's score was composed by none other than Quincy Jones, who was 31 years old 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; in this case, none other than the late Sydney Pollack, who passed away in 2008. This was Pollack's feature-film debut! He was 30 at the time.
So any film lover who hasn't seen this particular work should be excited as it all settles within you that you are about to watch a Sidney Poitier performance you haven't seen before, co-starring Anne Bancroft (a.k.a. Mrs Robinson from "The Graduate"), directed by then 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.
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 his Oscar during the ceremony, the year he won? 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 it's not quite Hitchcock (there is only one after all). However, as I watched it, I remember being reminded of Hitchock's "Rope," a film notable for its single location (much of "Slender" happens at the suicide clinic with Poitier on the phone), that takes place in real time ("Slender" mimics this as well).
Time is of the essence here; Will this untrained volunteer be able to keep the woman on the phone long enough for the police to find her? 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 strongest 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 in 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 of 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 at the same time and space together, given the film's plot.
The story (which was based on real life events) obviously doesn't lend itself to a romance of any sort between the two leads, so there aren't any opportunities to exploit the sexuality of the characters, or any attraction they might have felt towards each other otherwise. Given that their entire relationship exists solely from one end of the "slender thread" of the phone line connecting them, to the other, 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 knowledge as a volunteer at a clinic for suicidal patients 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 you'd remember most is just how polished his films usually are. There's a tidiness to them and 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 occasional bits of over-acting, it's mostly well acted, both the starring and supporting cast, which include 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. No what I'd call poignant messages 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.
Check out an original trailer for "Slender Thread" below, which you can find on home video.