Without a Trace (1983)

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Directed by Stanley R. Jaffe
Written by Beth Gutcheon

Rated PG

Kate Nelligan as Susan Selky
Judd Hirsch as Detective Albert Menetti
David Dukes as Graham Selky
Stockard Channing as Jocelyn Morris
Jacqueline Brookes as Margaret Mayo
Daniel Bryan Corkill as Alex Selky
Keith McDermott as Phillipe

A six-year-old boy named Etan Patz left his New York City in May of 1979 to walk to school. He was never seen again. The case remained open for years, and for years a convicted child molester was considerable the probable suspect. The case reopened in 2010, and there was a confession in 2012. President Ronald Reagan deemed May 25 as National Missing Children’s Day, and Etan’s face was the first to appear on the side of a milk carton.

Beth Gutcheon’s novel Still Missing is loosely based on the Patz case, and Without a Trace is her adaptation of the book. The film is a riveting examination of every parent’s worst nightmare.

Kate Nelligan is outstanding as Susan Selky, a Columbia professor who kisses her son Alex (Daniel Brian Corkill) goodbye, watches as he begins his short walk to school from their Brooklyn brownstone, and waves to him before he is out of sight. This is the last she sees of him.

When Susan arrives home later the same day, she discovers Alex never arrived at school, and the nightmare begins. She has been separated from her philandering husband Graham (David Dukes) for three months. Graham is also a professor, at New York University. The smart and compassionate Det. Menetti (Judd Hirsch) spearheads the case, and the early focus is on Graham. When Graham finally arrives with an airtight alibi, the trail begins again from scratch.

There are many do-overs in the case, as is the tragic situation in so many of these mysteries.

Throughout the early stages of the ordeal, Susan remains stoic and calm. Nelligan is remarkable in the role, portraying a woman of education and refinement, confronted with the unthinkable. Her demeanor could be perceived as cold, but that would be a mistaken observation. Rather, Susan displays a woman in deep pain, forging through the paralyzing uncertainty, determined to bring her son home.

Hirsch is completely convincing as the dogged detective, moving past dead end after dead end, even acknowledging the child simply vanished. We hear statistics, and the strong potential Alex was abducted a pedophile, or “wacko kid killer.” This film was released to theatres just months before the TV-movie Adam aired. Adam, of course, is the wrenching story of the Hollywood, Florida, six-year-old boy who was abducted from a mall and brutally murdered in 1981. His father, John Walsh, became host of the long-running television series America’s Most Wanted, while John and his wife RevĂ© founded the Adam Walsh Resource Center.

The film’s turning point arrives when an arrest is made. A gay man is implicated in the disappearance and potential murder of Alex. Susan is unsure of the man’s guilt, even reminding Det. Menetti he told her “practically all child molesters were heterosexual, that a gay man was the least likely candidate.” Det. Menetti insists he has the physical evidence to back up his certainty. Still, Susan believes her son is alive – and still missing.

Friends begin to worry about Susan’s mental and emotional state of mind. Her ex-husband indicates that Susan worries him. Susan’s best friend Jocelyn (Stockard Channing) is firm but gentle in her assertion that the little is gone, and not coming back, and Susan must face reality for her own good. Susan rejects both of them, lashing out with an anger and ferocity that could only stem from a wounded mother’s love.

The film must end, as I suppose it should, with tears. I won’t reveal it, but the film arrives to its conclusion honestly and with genuine heart.

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