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Slender Thread (1965) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

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Principal social theme: suicide/depression

Paramount. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Sidney Poitier, Anne Bancroft, Telly Savalas, Steven Hill, Ed Asner, Indus Arthur, Paul Newlan, Dabney Coleman, H. N. Wynant, Robert Hoy, Marjorie Nelson, Thomas Hill, Janet Dudley, Charlotte Stewart, Viola Harris, and John Napier. Written by Stirling Silliphant based on a magazine article by Shana Alexander. Cinematography by Loyal Griggs. Edited by Thomas Stanford. Music by Quincy Jones. Produced by Stephen Alexander. Directed by Sydney Pollack. B&W. 98 minutes.


Slender Thread is a dramatic portrayal of one evening shift at the Seattle Crisis Clinic, a 24-hour hot line for counseling people in trouble. It focuses on one particular case, a woman who takes an overdose of sleeping pills and calls to talk until the drugs take effect. The story covers the factors that compelled the woman to take this desperate step as well as the intense efforts to save her—from the volunteer manning the telephone at the Crisis Center to those of the police, the local hospital, and the telephone company. The production managed to interweave carefully the suspense elements in tracking down the woman with the general problems that might drive individuals to suicide.


Psychology student Alan Newell (Sidney Poitier) arrives for his evening shift as telephone monitor at the Seattle Crisis Center. He hopes it will be a quiet evening, so he can catch up with his studies for an upcoming test at the university. Dr. Coburn (Telly Savalas) asks Alan if he could leave him alone tonight since the psychiatrist wants to spend the evening with his son. He leaves his phone number with him in case of emergency. At first, things are routine, the only call being from an inebriated barber who just wants to shoot the breeze. His next call, however, is a matter of life and death. A woman (Anne Bancroft) confesses that she is planning to kill herself and just took a large quantity of barbiturates. At first she refuses to tell him her name, but as she continues to ramble on, she mentions her name is Inga. Alan tells Inga he needs to get a cup of coffee, and calls the phone company switchboard to trace the woman’s call and to summon Dr. Coburn back to the center. Meanwhile, he begins to gain Inga’s confidence and asks her to explain to him what went so wrong that she decided to attempt suicide. Alan learns that her marriage is in crisis since her husband, Mark (Steven Hill), a commercial fisherman, learned that he was not the biological father of their twelve-year-old son Christopher. In fact, Inga tried to drown herself months earlier, when her husband opened a letter from an attorney that granted Chris a small inheritance from his actual father. Mark became less hostile after her suicide attempt, but their rift was never completely healed. After Mark returned from his next extended fishing trip, they made an effort to reconcile, but Inga feels it was a failure. Alan is relieved when Dr. Coburn returns, but the psychiatrist refuses to take his place on the phone, saying it would be too difficult for Inga to switch to another person, and she would probably hang up. With the sketchy details gathered about Inga’s previous suicide attempt, Coburn contacts the police to track down her identity from hospital records. Once the cops establish her last name is Dyson, they visit her home address and learn from the sitter that she supposedly went on an overnight trip, and her husband is on his regular fishing run. They put out an all points bulletin to locate her car and radio her husband to return to port immediately. The phone trace finally reports that the call is coming from Hyatt House, a large hotel. Alan continues talking with Inga, who is becoming increasingly sluggish and lethargic. Coburn estimates that only a short time remains to save her. At one point Inga asks Alan to laugh. He forces himself at first, and finally, he and Coburn start to guffaw convulsively. The police begin searching Hyatt House, which is fully booked due to a convention, checking out each room. Inga becomes incoherent and passes out. Mark Dyson arrives at the crisis center, and he starts to call out to her over the phone. Finally, they hear sounds of someone breaking in the door. Moments later, a policeman comes on the line and informs Alan and Mark that Inga is still breathing. The medics are working on her and believe she will survive. After the phone line is disconnected, Alan stares at the receiver. The police rush Mark to the hospital where Inga will be taken. Coburn and the others congratulate Alan for saving the woman’s life. He lets out a shout of triumph, and then sits back in a chair, relieved, as the end credits run.


The Slender Thread is very successful in striking the right tone. Part of this is due to the excellent location footage in and around Seattle, at police stations, hospitals, and telephone relay centers. The approach is semidocumentary, but also with a gritty edge like traditional film noir. The cast provides the film’s main thrust. Sidney Poitier is excellent in the starring role, which is race neutral. Anne Bancroft is a bit too old to be the thirty-year-old Inga, but she carries off her difficult role quite well. Telly Savalas is totally convincing as the overworked psychiatrist. The script is very well balanced between the action, battling the clock to save Inga in time, and the flashback sequences depicting the background of Inga’s troubles. The main theme of the film is kept front and center throughout by a large sign on the wall of the clinic directly behind Poitier. It reads, in large block letters: “EVERY TWO MINUTES SOMEONE ATTEMPTS SUICIDE IN THE U.S.A.” The irony is that actual suicide calls to the hot line appear to be a rarity. Most phone callers are either hoaxes or depressed individuals wanting to talk out their problems. Volunteers, such as Alan Newell, fill out a form as they receive calls, mostly a series of standard questions for later follow-up if people require additional treatment or referral. The crisis center operates with a shoestring staff mostly of volunteers. At one point, alone in the center, Alan cries out to Inga that the night she places the most important call of her life, fate swindles her by having only a barely trained amateur on hand. However, as the film proceeds, the audience sees the large number of professionals, technicians, doctors, medics, policemen, and others, who back Alan up, unknown even to him. Their efforts, a network of caring individuals doing their jobs, provide a somewhat reassuring subtext to the entire film.

Sloan, Alfred, Jr. - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Alfred Sloan, Jr. [next] [back] Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

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