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The Slender Thread
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The Slender Thread

Notable as the feature film debut of actor-turned-director Sydney Pollack, The Slender Thread (1965) is an accomplished first film for Pollack who would go on to garner three Oscar® nominations for Best Director in the ensuing years with They Shoot Horses, Don't They? in 1969, Tootsie in 1983, and Out of Africa in 1986 which won him the Academy Award. It was inspired by a real incident and dramatized as the short story "Decision to Die" which appeared in Life magazine in the May 29, 1964 issue. The writer was Shana Alexander and her husband Hollywood producer Stephen Alexander optioned it as a film property shortly thereafter.

Set in Seattle's Crisis Clinic, the movie sets up a dramatic situation at the outset with a suicidal woman (Anne Bancroft) calling into the clinic after taking an overdose of barbiturates. Her call is received by Alan Newell (Sidney Poitier), a student volunteer at the center who is majoring in psychology. As the clinic staff races against time to trace the call and rescue the distraught woman, Alan tries to keep her talking and in the process learns of the events leading up to her decision to kill herself. Alternating between flashbacks and the stressful situation at the crisis clinic, The Slender Thread works best as a dramatic showcase for the performances of Anne Bancroft as the suicidal Mrs. Dyson and Sidney Poitier as her lifeline to survival.

The original working title of the film was "Cross My Heart and Hope to Die" with Elizabeth Ashley slated to play Mrs. Dyson but a contract dispute forced her to drop out and she was replaced by Ms. Bancroft. As for Sidney Poitier, he recalled his involvement in his autobiography This Life: "Martin Baum heard of a producer who was about to make a film called The Slender Thread. He read the script and found a part he thought I could play, although again the part was not designated for a black actor. Through a determined effort, Marty sold the producer, who in turn sold the film company, who in turn gave permission for Sydney Pollack to hire me to play that part opposite Anne Bancroft, Steven Hill, and Telly Savalas. So off I went again to face the cameras - this time in Seattle...The Slender Thread experience gave me great satisfaction. Anne Bancroft was simply fantastic, and Telly, of course, is an infinitely better actor than Kojak allowed us to see (alas, Kojak may have completely submerged his large talent; its imagery is so indelible in people's minds)." In addition to Savalas and Steven Hill, Edward Asner and Dabney Coleman are also featured in key supporting roles.

According to Janet L. Meyer in Sydney Pollack: A Critical Filmography, "The dramatization of the first suicide attempt revealed in the film could have been a costly one. Bancroft was wearing the bottom of a wetsuit under her costume. As she waded off shore to dramatize the suicide, the wet suit became saturated and pulled her underwater. Pollack and other members of the film crew had to rescue her!"

Filmed on location in Seattle and at the University of Washington, The Slender Thread features striking black and white cinematography by Loyal Griggs and a music score by Quincy Jones. Seattle, a picturesque but rarely used film location at that time, was also the backdrop for the 1963 Elvis Presley movie, It Happened at the World's Fair. Except for the interior scenes of the crisis center in The Slender Thread, which were filmed on a Paramount sound stage, everything else was filmed on location.

Stirling Silliphant, who based his screenplay on Shana Alexander's short story, would go to work on another Sidney Poitier film two years later - In the Heat of the Night (1967) - and for that, he would win the Best Screenplay Oscar®. However, it was the Art Direction by Hal Pereira, Jack Poplin, Robert Benton, and Joseph Kish and the costumes by Edith Head that received Academy Award nominations for The Slender Thread.

A modestly budgeted, small scale movie, The Slender Thread was much closer in spirit to the live television dramas of the fifties a la Marty and Days of Wine and Roses. And Pollack, a former actor who came from a background in television directing on such shows as The Defenders, Ben Casey and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, was perfectly at home with this intimate type of drama. Yet, despite the strong central performances of Bancroft and Poitier, The Slender Thread received mostly mixed reviews from the critics. Typical of the overall consensus is this notice by New York Times reviewer A.H. Weiler: "...an often awesome, compelling but occasionally banal soap opera study stemming from the chillingly final statistic, "every two minutes someone attempts suicide in the United States" that hangs in Seattle's Crisis Clinic. Despite the obvious attribute of exposing the clinic's largely unheralded good works, the performances of the principals and the film's naturalistic dialogue are more memorable than the story itself. The Slender Thread makes its dramatic statement long before it unwinds in denouement."

Producer: Stephen Alexander
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: Shana Alexander, David Rayfiel, Stirling Silliphant
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Film Editing: Thomas Stanford
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Jack Poplin
Music: Quincy Jones
Cast: Sidney Poitier (Alan Newell), Anne Bancroft (Inge Dyson), Telly Savalas (Dr. Joe Coburn), Steven Hill (Mark Dyson), Edward Asner (Det. Judd Ridley), Indus Arthur (Marian).
BW-98m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:

This Life by Sidney Poiter
Sydney Pollack: A Critical Filmography by Janet L. Meyer
AFI
VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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