Monday, April 11, 2011
A deeply affecting and haunting film based on the real-life disappearance of six-year old Etan Patz in 1979, Without a Trace (1983) is a real overlooked treasure from one-time director Stanley R. Jaffe. Scripted beautifully by Beth Gutcheon, from her own novel based on the Patz disappearance (entitled Still Missing), Without a Trace benefits from Jaffe’s sensitive and smart direction and a trio of extraordinary performances from Kate Nelligan, Judd Hirsch and Stockard Channing.
The 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz in Manhattan was a truly tragic case that went unsolved for well over a decade. Patz’s disappearance sparked a media frenzy in the late seventies and eventually led to the much-need missing child movement that continues to this day. Without a Trace is a fictionalized account of the Patz incident that manages to be both non-exploitative and respectful. It also never falls into a ‘Lifetime’ movie of the week mode thanks to Jaffe’s expert handling of the material and his extraordinary cast.
Jaffe is of course best known as a producer whose films include The Bad News Bears (1976), Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979), Fatal Attraction (1987) and The Accused (1988). Without a Trace remains the only film that Jaffe directed in his five-decade career and that’s a shame, as it is an accomplished piece of work. Jaffe’s direction has a great subtle quality that fits the material perfectly. This is a relatively quiet film where a million emotions are spoken with just a glance or a seemingly non-essential piece of dialogue. Jaffe also helps make Without a Trace into a compulsively watchable mystery that is ultimately as entertaining as it is heartbreaking.
While Jaffe’s direction of Without a Trace is solid, much of the credit for the technical side of the film has to go to the wonderful cinematographer John Bailey, a talented artist who had just delivered absolutely masterful work for Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982). Bailey has a wonderful eye for both the fantastic and mundane and Without a Trace benefits greatly from his skill as a cinematographer. The New York presented in his lens in simultaneously commonplace and sinister and his skills behind the camera add to the mystery of Without a Trace, and helps keep the material as far away from a TV movie of the week as possible.
The real triumph of Without a Trace are the performances from Nelligan as Susan, the mother who is searching desperately for her missing child, Channing as Jocelyn, Susan’s best-friend who can only stand by her for so long and Hirsch as Al, the detective on the case who becomes as personally involved as anyone. Judd Hirsch is particularly brilliant in this film and turns what could have been a routine police investigator into a real multi-layered man torn apart by his inability to solve the mystery of what happened to this young child.
Without a Trace, which features an ending quite different from the real-life Patz ordeal, opened up in the winter of 1983 to mostly solid reviews but poor box-office. It kind of fell off the map after its release on VHS in the late eighties, and the DVD that was released back in 2005 quickly slipped out of print. The film occasionally runs on the Fox Movie Channel and it can be streamed via Netflix as well for those who wish to seek it out.
It’s a haunting and moving work
that really caught me off guard when I recently watched it for the first time.