Thursday, December 22, 2016

Kate Nelligan Shines in "Without a Trace"

The poster for the 1983 kidnapping drama.
When I reviewed Eye of the Needle (1981) earlier this year, I heard back from a number of Kate Nelligan fans via social media. It was refreshing to discover that the talented Canadian actress remains popular today. It also inspired me to dig out an old review of one of her best films, Without a Trace, which I penned during my film critic days. I've updated and re-edited it for this blog, but my original assessment of this well-crafted, seldom-shown film remains the same.

Beth Gutcheon adapted the screenplay from her novel Still Missing, which was inspired by a true case involving a six-year-old boy's disappearance in Manhattan in 1980. Gutcheon could have easily stressed the suspenseful aspects of her story and made the movie another crime thriller. Instead, she concentrates on the people involved and their relationships.

Kate Nelligan as the mother.
Kate Nelligan stars as Susan Selky, a Columbia University professor whose son disappears after leaving for school one morning. When the case attracts local media attention, both Susan and her estranged husband come under scrutiny (e.g., she is criticized for allowing her young son to walk to school by himself). As leads continue to fizzle, the senior detective's bosses apply pressure to scale back the investigation, leaving Susan to wonder if her son will ever be found.

Much of the film's tension can be attributed to its realistic portrait of an upper middle-class, urban neighborhood. From the downtown delicatessen to the children's playground in the park, the world created in Without a Trace is one considered safe by the families who live there. It's why Susan doesn't hesitate to let her son walk three short blocks to school. When a crime does occur in this "safe" world, it is all the more horrifying. As one of the policemen says: "If it happened here, it could happen anywhere."

Nelligan conveys courage, frustration and determination in every frame of the movie. It is a bravura performance in a critical role. One simply has to watch her face when a telephone rings, her eyes filled with a mixture of hope and terror.

Director Stanley R. Jaffe employs sound and silence to great effect throughout the film. He uses a tea kettle whistling in a silent apartment to convey the mother's growing alarm as she slowly realizes that something has happened to her son. The sounds of a clicking toy, a whimpering dog, and police sirens are all deftly used to complement the action. Jaffe skillfully reminds us that movies can do more than move and that there is more to sound than just dialogue. Amazingly, it was his only directorial effort, despite a successful career producing films such as Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Bad News Bears, and Fatal Attraction.

Nelligan, David Dukes, and Judd Hirsch.
The fine supporting cast includes Judd Hirsch as the caring police detective, David Dukes as the boy's father, and Stockard Channing as Susan's neighbor and friend. Still, it's Nelligan's superb performance that holds the film together. I was certain she would receive a Best Actress nomination, but that was not to be (it was the year that both Shirley MacLaine, the eventual winner, and Debra Winger were nominated for Terms of Endearment).

Without a Trace is a carefully crafted film that represents Hollywood filmmaking at its best. Kate Nelligan's performance is worth the price of admission. The rest of the movie is simply frosting on the cake-- but it is all very tasty indeed.


  1. This sounds terrific! Your descriptions of the film's atmosphere have me scrambling to see where I can stream it.

    Kate Nelligan is a fantastic actress, and I was also pleased to read that she still has a lot of fans on social media.

  2. You have made me want to revisit "Without a Trace".

  3. Thanks for shining a light on this forgotten gem. I saw it at the time because of Nelligan and Pauline Kael's review in the New Yorker. Nelligan elevated everything she was in and when the film was good to begin with it became so much better. It's a pity she didn't have a huge career but for all I know that may have been how she wanted it.

    1. Yes, I think stage has been more "her thing." She got lost in the "Terms of Endearment" accolades and while a great actress, Nelligan rightfully (I believe) got shunned for bigger-named Shirley MacLaine. Kate's raw emotions and expressions still haunt me, decades later.

  4. I still get goosebumps just thinking of Kate's performance in this movie. When Channing asks her "When will this obsession stop?" and Kate replies with "When "I" can't stand anymore...when "I" can't stand anymore, and not One Minute before then..." It has to be in my top 3 movie imprints left in my heart in decades. So raw, so real. I don't own the movie, but I'll catch it from time to time every couple of years and still relive those goosebump moments. She was robbed of an Oscar by a bigger name. What a shame.