Set in a Seattle crisis clinic, Sidney Poitier stars as a university student volunteer at the centre who receives a call just as the more experienced Dr. Coburn (Telly Savalas) has finished for the night. It’s Inge (Anne Bancroft), a woman in a clearly very distressed state who has swallowed some sleeping pills and won’t tell Poitier where she lives. She wants to die, Poitier needs to keep her awake, alive, and talking to either get her to divulge her whereabouts, or stay on the line long enough for the cops (represented by a wasted Ed Asner) to trace the call and track her down. Slowly we begin to learn slivers of Inge’s sad story, and the problems in her marriage to fisherman Steven Hill, from whom she has been keeping a big secret for a long time.
Even if it might have dated somewhat, this 1965 film from director Sydney Pollack (“The Scalphunters”, “Tootsie”, “Out of Africa”) still offers interest as an insight into how suicide hotlines/helplines were run back in the 60s. It also gives Anne Bancroft a helluva acting showcase, and when does Sidney Poitier ever phone in a performance (excuse the pun)? Add to that an issue that is not only very important but still very relevant today, and you’ve got yourself a solid, suspenseful film.
It’s also sensationally shot in B&W by Loyal Griggs (“Shane”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, “The Ten Commandments”), with an aerial assist from time to time by Nelson Tyler (“Tobruk”). They help keep the film from appearing too closed-in and stagey, for what is, at the end of the day, very much a conversation-based film. Far less impressive is the immediately intrusive, jazzy music score by Quincy Jones (“In the Heat of the Night”, “In Cold Blood”). He seems to be trying to steal the film from everyone else by making as much noise as possible, and his cool, jazzy intrusions just don’t mesh with the rather serious themes of the film. It’s a mistake in an otherwise solid, if somewhat simple film.
Is there an actor with a better batting average and laidback confidence than Sidney Poitier? He rarely even seems to come across like he’s acting, and in my view must rank in the Top 10 actors of all-time for sure. His role here, in lesser hands could’ve come across as functionary and somewhat passive, but with Poitier gets you inside this guy’s head. This guy isn’t experienced, doesn’t always do what someone in his position is supposed to, and yet he doesn’t seem to realise just how well he is doing. It’s difficult to achieve that sense of humility when it’s obvious to the audience that this guy is rather good at his job, novice or not, and so it’s a testament to Poitier’s talent that he projects that humility in a manner that doesn’t come across as phony. But this is truly Bancroft’s film, she does so much when a lot of the time it’s just her voice she has to work with. This is a sad, weary woman who seems to have all-but given up on life. Steven Hill also nicely contributes as her husband, though he has much less screen time.
I think it’s interesting to look at how difficult tracing phone calls was in the 60s, and it helps provide for a very tense, harrowing drama. However, this film’s real strength comes in the performances by calm, cool Sidney Poitier, and especially the sad and world-weary Anne Bancroft. Fans of the actress will not want to miss this, one of her best-ever roles. A basic idea that one is surprised hasn’t been done more often over the years. A fine directorial debut for Pollack, it holds up pretty well today, though obviously tracing phone calls is now quicker and easier. The screenplay is by Stirling Silliphant (“In the Heat of the Night”, “The Poseidon Adventure”, “The Towering Inferno”), from a magazine story by Shana Alexander.