It’s quitting hour in Seattle, and in the long shadow of the Space Needle two cars cross paths en route to opposite ends of the city. Alan (Sidney Poitier), with a pencil tucked behind his ear and a textbook conspicuously clipped to the dashboard, heads to his gig-for-college-credit at a crisis center. Meanwhile, the forlorn Inga (Anne Bancroft) runs stop signs and red lights with frantic, if ambiguous, purpose. Alan soon reaches his destination, where he relieves the office’s daytime staff and settles in for solo nightshift. He’s alone for less than five minutes before Inga rings his hotline, feeling unusually chatty after downing a lethal dose of barbiturates.
Certain assumptions about what follows have been encouraged by this prologue. First, the seemingly predestined phone call acts as both plot device and dramatic tether, and since Alan’s action can’t exceed the length of the telephonic wire, we prepare ourselves for slickly cinematized theater a la Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men. During the wordless, en plein air credit sequence we even feel the film gulping down its own aerial B-roll, as though the plot were about to be locked away. Second, race appears irrelevant to the story. The extroverted academic assiduity of Poitier’s protagonist notwithstanding, no one acknowledges his anomalous skin tone.
Both assumptions are eventually proven false. The Slender Thread is in fact slick anti-theater, and its chief topic is, if not precisely race, then the difficulty of communication among the subtly disenfranchised. Alan’s goal throughout the tossing and turning of the movie’s 90-plus minutes is not to save Inga from her menopausal self (the suicide has already been initiated, and she’s past the point of persuasion), but to keep her on the line while policemen trace the call. This objective is so psychologically reductive that it nearly robs the film of its plausibility. If an unbreakable rhythm is all that needs to be established between the characters, exchanging vibrant lies would be more expedient than trading difficult, silly truths. (Inga reveals that she tricked a hard-working man with middle-class aspirations into marrying her while she carried another’s fetus; once this garishly bourgeois deception catches up with her, her flashbacks become tedious and pity-ridden.) Still, Alan’s stabs at “talking method” reconnaissance prove ineffective, in spite of their aims’ simplicity.
But Pollack reassures us that he’s only interested in their after-hours psychobabble insofar as its vapidity suggests their humanly estrangement. Alan and Inga have trained well for this interminable and nonsensical conversation; it becomes clear that they’ve been stalling the white, male primacy with bullshit for their entire lives. And as their non-dialogue stretches on and on, anonymous technicians lead us past coruscating switchboard panels into the tangled bowels of telecommunication, through which they hope to decipher Inga’s secret dying place. (The “stage” of the crisis clinic thus sheds its stage-ness and is reborn as a “node.”) In short, the distance between a Caucasian woman on the brink of reproductive failure and an African American grad student has been made so vast and confusing that it requires nearly a dozen men to bridge physically. Alan himself struggles to bridge it rhetorically, often succumbing to fuzzy, “We Shall Overcome”-isms: “You’ve been ignored or studied out of the corners of people’s eyes? Me too. You’ve been suffered and tolerated? Me too.” Such fumbling implies how strenuously their mutually subaltern states have been made to seem hopelessly incongruous.
The film quietly embodies, however, the socio-political ironies that Alan exaggeratedly decries by necessity in his monologues. As Alan speaks to Inga, the older, Caucasian psychiatric supervisor on duty (Telly Savalas) nods in approbation or warns him off certain strategies with browed sternness. Whatever the sterling racial candor of Alan’s literally phoned-in performance, it’s being calibrated for a white judge. Flashbacks depicting Inga’s fall from grace before the judging eyes of her traditional, Joe Schmo husband are less subtle, but they’re photographed like surreal nightmares that rarefy the film’s sub-feminist ideas. A discotheque full of gyrating navels becomes asexual and oppressive—a cavalcade of uncompromised wombs that mock Inga. And a ghostly, backlit outline of the once-tender husband’s head suggests the negative human space with which she resolves to align herself; only a husband emptied of affection, she reasons, deserves a wife emptied of life, and vice versa.
The last theme facilitates the film’s climax, wherein Alan attempts to keep Inga awake and alive by convincing her that she isn’t alone in her nonentity-ness. Hilariously, however, the epilogue implicates the necessarily marginalizing nature of clinical attitudes: Alan rejects an offer to rush to Inga’s material side, preferring that she remain a disembodied voice. And so the safe distance between the smolderingly angry black and the desperate female, though threatened, is ultimately reinforced, and the white males in the audience can return to their lives without fear of an impending Afro-feminist revolution.
The print used for this 1080p transfer looks clean enough, with only a few sullying instances of grit or jittery frames. But as with their My Son John Blu-ray, Olive Films's subpar telecine process again precludes the appreciation of striking and thematically significant black-and-white photography. Sections of the screen suffer from occasional bursts of visible pixel-squares, and the contrast appears awkwardly miscalibrated throughout: Shadows, nightscapes, and even Sidney Poitier's skin appear slightly gray-washed. (Perhaps this tonal collapse was intended to mirror the parallel paths of subordination on which Poitier and Anne Bancroft travel?) The sound mix is thankfully intelligible, given the lack of subtitles, though the peals of Quincy Jones's ersatz-jazz score are rather irritatingly hot.
Olive Films's high-def release of Sydney Pollack's slickly oppression-conscious debut is an unfortunately slender package.