50 Years Ago This Week – Sydney Pollack’s First

The closing days of 1965 saw the release of The Slender Thread, the first feature film directed by Sydney Pollack, who had been scuffing around as a TV actor (and director) for the previous decade.  Thread marked the start of an impressive career for Pollack as a movie director (and subsequently as a notable producer as well).  He also flashed some real acting chops now and then along the way, offering strong, pivotal performances in excellent films with A-list players, including his own Tootsie (1982), Husbands and Wives (Allen, 1992), Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, 1999), and Michael Clayton (Gilroy, 2007), and a well-played turn as a genially sociopathic doctor in an episode of The Sopranos.

The Slender Thread has its moments, but it is not a great film.  A stagy story inspired by a Life magazine article, the drama centers around the long telephone conversation between an ambivalently suicidal woman (Anne Bancroft) and the out-of-his-depth college student (Sidney Poitier), a volunteer who by circumstance found himself alone in the crisis center when her call rings through.  In requisite movie fashion, the clock ticks down—will he find out where she is before the fistful of swallowed barbiturates take their inevitable effect?

Telly Savalas grounds the film with his reliable charismatic intensity (and his reliable loyalty to his brother George – Stavros on Kojak – nice to see him in a cameo appearance here); Ed Asner also shows up intermittently in an underwritten role, and the movie has some solid police-procedural elements (including the slowest phone trace in human history).  But the film is ultimately a two-hander, and works best on the phone, in the crisis center, with just the two leads.  (All the flashback sequences – loosely-linked episodes that bring Bancroft to the precipice of crisis – though nicely shot on Seattle locations nevertheless grind the action to a halt and with one or two exceptions fail to rise above soap opera.) 

Had it been made a few years later, the film might have had the courage of its convictions, and gone with an ending that would have paid off its implicit gender politics with real strength.  But in 1965, the New Hollywood was still just around the corner, and Slender Thread often uneasily straddles the old Hollywood and the New, most notably with an embarrassing scene at a “mod” club, replete with Hippies, zooming cameras, and generic British-Invasion knockoff band.  Poitier’s performance also leans towards the studio, as he features the steely precision of a classical Hollywood pro.  But the times were notably changing, if slowly: student protestors are briefly glimpsed, and the movie’s most sophisticated turn can be seen in its flawless treatment of Poitier’s race—irrelevant and unnoticed, but for one powerful, private, indirect allusion that fits seamlessly with the drama.        

Most important, then, is that Slender Thread was good enough to keep Pollack working.  Throughout his career he always had at least one eye on bankability, and as such favored commercial projects with big stars (most notably his long-standing collaboration with Robert Redford), but he both directed, and, especially in later years, provided crucial support for a number of thoughtful, ambitious pictures as well.  And his own New Hollywood resume includes They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969); The Yakuza (1974), written by Paul Schrader and re-written by Robert Towne, starring the great Robert Mitchum; and, of course, Three Days of the Condor (1975).   One of the great films of the 70s, Condor is also very much a Pollack film, with essential contributions by screenwriters Lorenzo Semple Jr and David Rayfiel (Pollack’s go-to script doctor), cinematographer Owen Roizman, and a stand-out cast: Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, John Houseman, and, indelibly, “it will happen this way”—Max von Sydow.    

slender thread

The Slender Thread

 

Condor

Three Days of the Condor

 

SP in HW

Pollack in Husbands and Wives