Change of hearts

Medical thriller provokes thought

Published: Dec 03 2013, 01:01:am

Thursday, May 26, 1983
THRESHOLD. Written by James Salter. Music by Micky Erbe and Maribeth Solomon. Directed by Richard Pearce. Running time: 97 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier: warnings scenes of surgery, occasional swearing and nudity.
DR. THOMAS VRAIN (Donald Sutherland) lives on the cutting edge. The chief of cardiac surgery at the California Heart Institute, he is the leading practitioner of the futuristic art of the organ transplant.
    Life would be a lot easier for Vrain if he were more of a stereotype. Surgeons, according to their detractors, are medicine's mechanics, masked technicians practicing their art with the detachment of TV repairmen.
    Vrain, the central figure in Threshold, is no stereotype. A deeply compassionate professional, he is a dedicated doctor who takes all of his responsibilities seriously.
    The film opens with Vrain putting in an appearance at "Heart Day," a media event designed to give his hospital a positive profile in the community. Despite his obvious sincerity, he can't help sounding like a game show host when he says "tell me, which of these twins had the heart operation?"
    It's a duty not unlike his attendance, some days later, at a medical trade show. There he sees a demonstration of some Japanese-built artificial hearts and meets Dr. Aldo Gehring (Jeff Goldblum), a young bio-engineer with a better idea.
    Beneath Aldo's somewhat fanatic exterior, Vrain recognizes genius. Slipping into his fundraiser mode, he convinces philanthropist Edgar Fine (John Marley) that the hospital needs an artificial heart research program. Perhaps this will provide the answer to the organ rejection problem.
    Given the wrong combination of talents, this is the stuff of B-budget melodrama. Fortunately, all of the right talents were on hand, a happenstance that has given us Threshold, a first-class medical thriller and one of this year's best movies,
    James Salter starts things off with a solidly researched script. His understated, thought-provoking screenplay manages to set forth real issues within the context of a believable drama.
    Richard Pearce, a director with a background in documentary, translates it into a a low-key, literate film. Unfolding in a deceptively naturalistic way, it is a picture that makes palatable the underlying profundities.
    The clincher, though, is Sutherland, His [1983] Genie Award-winning performance here is one of his finest. He shows us in Vrain a modern hero, a man tightly in control, professionally impassive and yet full of humanity,
    An uncommonly deep and satisfying drama, Threshold is for  audiences who need more than cartoon action in their movies. This is a film about hearts for people with brains.
*    *    *
DONALD DOC: This isn't the first time that Donald Sutherland has been in surgery. An able and proactive actor, he learned to wield a scalpel under fire. In 1977, he had the title role in the CBC teleplay Dr. Bethune, the story of a courageous Canadian battlefield surgeon. He's probably best remembered, though, as the original Benjamin Franklin Pierce, the draftee doctor they called "Hawkeye" in the Robert Altman feature M*A*S*H (1970).

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1983. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: When Threshold went before the cameras in an Ottawa hospital, the first human heart transplant was already part of medical history. In 1967, South African surgeon Christian Barnard's achievement made headlines around the world. In 1981, director Richard Pearce made a film that featured the replacement of an organic heart with an artificial one, a subject that was still the stuff of science fiction. Sadly, his picture would not be released until January 1983, a month after American surgeon William DeVries installed a Jarvik-7 into the chest of a Seattle dentist named Barney Clark. Despite its quality, Threshold ended up with a minor distributor who appears to have spared every expense in its promotion. Its star, Donald Sutherland, who had been seen four years earlier playing Norman Bethune in a CBC-TV movie, would again play the politically-engaged doctor in the 1990 biographical epic Bethune: The Making of a Hero.