Without a Trace (1983) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • 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 treat her and her husband as suspects, even as she hounds them to find her child and drives away her husband (David Dukes) and friends (including Stockard Channing) with her intensity and single-mindedness.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Susan Selky (Kate Nelligan) is a well-known English professor at Columbia University. She lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with her six-year-old son Alex (Danny Corkill). One March morning, Susan sees Alex off to school, which is only two blocks away. Alex turns to wave to his mother, then disappears around the corner.

    Susan returns home after a day of teaching, and becomes increasingly alarmed when Alex is late coming home. She calls her friend and neighbor Jocelyn Norris (Stockyard Channing), whose daughter is a classmate of Alex's, and finds out that Alex never got to school. The NYPD is immediately called and officers descend on the townhouse, led by Lieutenant Al Menetti (Judd Hirsch). Susan is questioned closely on all aspects of her life and her son's, and police zero in on Susan's estranged husband Graham (David Dukes), a professor at NYU who hasn't been seen for hours. When Graham finally turns up, he produces an alibi, ruling him out as a suspect.

    Susan's case generates a lot of attention from the New York City media, with citizens helping in the search by distributing posters. Susan is initially criticized for allowing her son to walk to school by himself. Susan also takes a polygraph test that clears her as a suspect. Numerous leads are checked out, including several reports that Alex may have been seen in the back seat of a blue 1965 Chevy. A psychic is also called in, but each lead fizzles.

    Over the next few months, the investigation drags on and Graham is at odds with Menetti after budget cuts force Menetti to dismantle the command center in Susan's apartment and run the case from the precinct. Menetti's attention is soon diverted to other cases, but the Selky case is always a priority. At one point, Graham takes matters into his own hands after he gets a ransom call. He heads to a location the caller directs him to, but is cornered and beaten, prompting a hospital stay.

    A break in the case finally happens on the Fourth of July, when Susan's housecleaner, Philippe (Keith McDermott), is arrested as a suspect. A pair of Alex's bloody underpants was found in his apartment, where the gay Philippe was picked up with a male prostitute. Susan visits Philippe in jail, and he tells her that the bloody underpants came about when he used them to stop bleeding after he cut himself washing dishes in Susan's house. Convinced Philippe is innocent, Susan tries to persuade Menetti to drop the charges, but he refuses, citing physical evidence he won't discuss.

    The renewed media coverage generated by Philippe's arrest dies down, and Susan is facing increased pressure to drop the matter and accept that Alex could be dead. Susan's feelings come to a boiling point when a magazine cancels an article she wrote about Alex (because a gay man was arrested) and even her friend Jocelyn tells her it's time to give up.

    Susan tries to resume her normal routine, although she never loses faith that her son is alive. One day, she receives a phone call from a woman in Bridgeport, Connecticut named Malvina Robbins (Louise Stubbs), who says Alex is alive and living with neighbors. Menetti tells Susan that he has also heard from Robbins, but Bridgeport police told him the woman is just a crank, or in Menetti's words, "a lonely old booby". The investigation is closed, he says, and Philippe goes on trial within weeks.

    On a day off, Menetti is taking a drive with his son (David Simon). When he sees a sign for Bridgeport, Connecticut, he decides to check out the lead personally. He recruits his young son as his partner on the case. Once he is sure that the lead is false, Menetti hopes to browbeat Robbins from ever disturbing Mrs. Selky ever again. When Menetti arrives at Robbins' address, he is shocked to see a blue Chevy (in which witnesses had reported seeing Alex) parked in the driveway of the neighboring house. Realizing that Robbins was telling the truth, he uses her phone to contact the Bridgeport police. They find Alex alive and unharmed. It turns out that Alex's kidnapper is a desperate man who took the boy off the street to help him care for his elderly and disabled mother in the house.

    Menetti drives Alex back to New York with a huge police escort, and the New York media is tipped off that he's been found, converging on Susan's Brooklyn house. Susan returns from grocery shopping in time to see Alex stepping out of Menetti's car. In front of delighted bystanders and reporters, mother and child are reunited.

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