Cipher in the Snow (1973)

Watch on YouTube

Running time: 21m 20s
Source film:  16mm; color; sound
Year: 1973 (copyright); 1974 (release)
Director: Keith J. Atkinson
Production: Wetzel Whitaker, Brigham Young University
Writer: Carol Lynn Pearson
Cinematography: Reed Smoot, Ted Van Horn
Story: Jean Mizer Todhunter
Editor: Peter G. Czerny
Music Editor: Dennis Lisonbee

Cast: Robert Bridges, Bruce Kimball, Jacqueline Mayo, Roberta Shore, Walter Stocker, Mary Cox, Larry Watts, Martha Henstrom, Kirk Hutchings, Ronald Jenkins, Court LeRoy

During a school bus trip one morning, a sullen boy named Cliff Evans asks to be let off. The driver obliges and Cliff stumbles a few steps before face-planting in the snow (complete with a freeze-frame and title text). The driver of the car behind the bus —  a math teacher named Frank Carter — rushes to the boy’s aid as the oafish driver pleads disbelief. A crowd of kids exits the bus and assembles around their fallen peer, who is confirmed dead at the scene by EMTs. What could have caused this? Dehydration? A seizure? A drug overdose?

As the first responders on the scene, both Mr. Carter and the bus driver are summoned to the school principal’s office. Principal Howard reveals that Mr. Carter was the dead student’s favorite teacher. Even though Frank barely remembers having the boy in his class, the principal orders him to write Cliff’s obituary, inform his parents, attend his funeral to represent the school, and review administrative records to unpack the mystery of Cliff’s death. Seriously — no pressure, Frank.

Slowly but surely, the factors that sealed Cliff’s fate come into focus. His grades began slipping in the 3rd grade when his parents started having marital troubles. Teachers chided him for daydreaming in class and losing focus (e.g., “You know you’re the slowest one in the class?”) His stepfather regularly dumped on him for not performing manual labor around the household, and during a visit from Mr. Carter, he declares that “if [Cliff] hadn’t been so dumb, he would have told us he wasn’t feeling good,” with the boy’s grieving mother within earshot in the next room. Bullied by his peers and all but ignored by the adults in his life, Cliff had become a “cipher,” or total zero. As a result, a timid kid who loved frogs enough to write bad poetry about them, died not of any physiological cause, but from the lethally loaded metaphor of social erasure. Meeting with Principal Howard later in the film, Carter divides the blame equitably among everyone in Cliff’s life.

Despite its origins as a production of the film wing of the Church of Latter-day Saints, the film is not overtly religious, and was officially released at the 1974 Chicago International Film Festival. The acting is not especially good, even for an educational docu-drama, but there are some artful touches. The filmmakers show the deceased character in a sun-soaked flashback with a voice-over of the aforementioned frog poem, juxtaposed against the cold, gray winter of the present-day. During a scene where he has his hat stolen and placed atop a snowman by bullies, Cliff is left behind during recess, but lingers to decorate the faceless head with pennies for eyes, an eraser for a nose, and a pack of gum for a mouth.


The main character was popularized by a titular track of the same name on Shake Hands with Danger, a 2003 album by the Chicago-based electronic group, TRS-80. The song samples both music and dialogue from the original film.

The original film is available for purchase on DVD directly from BYU, as well as from A/V Geeks in the collections, Dag, That’s Cold! and Childhood Nightmare Fodder


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