Without a Trace (1983)

PG   |    |  Drama, Mystery

Without a Trace (1983) Poster

This film, centering on a child's abduction, casts Kate Nelligan as the distraught mother who lashes out at the police (in the person of a relentless detective played by Judd Hirsch), who ... See full summary »



  • David Dukes and Kate Nelligan in Without a Trace (1983)
  • Danny Corkill and Kate Nelligan in Without a Trace (1983)
  • Kate Nelligan in Without a Trace (1983)
  • Stanley R. Jaffe in Without a Trace (1983)
  • David Dukes and Kate Nelligan in Without a Trace (1983)
  • William Duell and Kate Nelligan in Without a Trace (1983)

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20 July 2003 | WriterDave
| A Great Film
It's one of those Saturday nights you decided not to go out to the bar. It's near midnight and you're flipping through the pay cable stations because you don't care to watch another rerun of Saturday Night Live. You come across a movie from the early 80's that sounds like a really bad TV movie. (A side note, I believe the true story that inspired this film also inspired a god-awful TV movie starring Christopher Reeve that I caught on Lifetime one Sunday afternoon while I was nursing a hang-over). Instead, 'Without a Trace' turns out to be one of those hidden gems you come across at just such odd times once in a blue moon. It's one of those films that makes you wonder how many other 'lost classics' are lurking out there amongst the overbearing weight of the tripe Hollywood typically puts out.

Kate Nelligan and Judd Hirsch deliver Oscar-caliber performances as the mother who won't accept her son is gone and the hardworking detective who takes a personal interest in the frustrating kidnapping case. This is one of those films that gives us an intimate look at one person's loss, how it effects those around them, and also provides a touching glimpse into the family of a cop trying to recover that person's loss. This was producer Stanley Jaffe's first and only foray into directing, and it's a shame, since he clearly delivered the goods here. There are two great scenes that play both as thrilling and heartbreaking that showcase just how capable and beautifully understated a director Jaffe was:

1. The night after the six-year old is kidnapped, the camera pans up from his discarded pajama top lying on the bathroom floor to his mother (Nelligan) having her first breakdown in the bathtub. It's a wonderful scene that is all at once chilling, gut-wrenching, and emotional resonant. 2. Nelligan retires to her bedroom and turns out all the lights. Everything is silent. All the audience sees is pitch black. It seems like this unfathomably dark silence could last forever. We the audience are put on the edge of our seats. Then the silence in broken. Nelligan begins to pray.

This is true tear jerker that I believe has probably been dismissed over the years because of the alleged all too happy 'Hollywood' ending that was tacked on. The true story that inspired this film didn't end so happily, but this was never meant to be a documentary. This is a movie that is designed to give people (especially parents) a sense of hope in a world gone mad, and I suspect it would especially connect with audiences today in the wake of all the high profile child abduction cases of late (i.e. the Smart case). The ending is beautifully executed and truly uplifting, and had the film not ended this way, the film would've been one of the bleakest, most depressing films ever made, and I fear I would've not been able to sleep that night. We all know how tragically things could've ended. All we need to do is look at the real world to see that and get depressed. This movie took a chance and decided to give us hope, and that is neither untrue or contrived, that is a stroke of genius.

When all is said and done, 'Without a Trace' is a great movie that deserves to be uttered in the same breath as 'Kramer vs. Kramer' and 'Ordinary People.' It makes more recent kidnap flicks (like Ron Howard's egregious thriller 'Ransom', and the pitifully hokey 'The Deep End of the Ocean') come across as terribly manipulative and untrue. Not to be missed. (Another side note: Where's the DVD? They seem to put every piece of crap ever produced on DVD these days, so why not this, something that is actually good and worthwhile and would connect deeply with audiences?)

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