Fourteen Hours (1951)
“From the edge of the ledge he defied them all!”
Fourteen Hours (1951)
Director: Henry Hathaway
Cast: Paul Douglas, Richard Basehart, Barbara Bel Geddes
Synopsis: An unhappy man threatens suicide by standing on the ledge of a high-rise building for 14 hours.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
Henry Hathaway’s overlooked suspense thriller Fourteen Hours is based on a true incident which took place in New York in 1938. On a sultry day in July of that year, 26-year-old John William Warde brought the city to a standstill for eleven hours by stepping out onto the window ledge of a 17th storey room of the Gotham Hotel and threatening to jump. Warde had only recently been released from what was then known as an insane asylum, and was in an agitated state after taking offence at a remark made by his sister. A policeman named Paul Glasco spent hours trying to talk him down, and was only foiled from doing so when a press photographer burst into the hotel room in which Glasco was situated and startled Warde into jumping. It’s not exactly the kind of material from which you’d expect a major studio to make a movie, even though Fourteen Hours has a different outcome to the incident on which it’s based, which perhaps explains why it’s a movie that has flown under most people’s radars.
Warde is renamed Robert Cosick for the movie, and played by Richard Basehart, one of those leading men with whom Hollywood was never quite sure what to do. He gives a solid enough performance, by turns hesitant, disturbed and excitable, but remains beyond our sympathy as John Paxton’s pedestrian script fudges the issue of exactly what it is that has troubled Cosick enough for him to contemplate taking his own life. Most of the blame is placed by the attendant psychiatrist on his mother (Agnes Moorehead – The Magnificent Ambersons, Jane Eyre), who took to mollycoddling him after his father (Robert Keith – Abraham Lincoln) left home to concentrate on his drinking. Naturally, Cosick won’t hear a bad word spoken against his mother, but does confess to worrying about whether he can make his girlfriend (Barbara Bel Geddes – Vertigo) happy. We could infer from all this that Cosick is struggling with his latent homosexuality but, hey, this is 1951, and we don’t talk about things like that…
Glasco is played by the dependable character actor Paul Douglas, an avuncular type with limited acting ability but a likeable persona. He sits at the window and tries to entice Cosick in with homespun philosophy and stories of his wife’s cooking, and appears mildly astonished by the psychobabble spouted by Dr. Strauss (Martin Gabel – Marnie) in the room behind him.
Fourteen Hours’ nod to Noir stylisation, and the way it focuses on the way the media callously exploits an individual’s intimate pain and tragedy for its own purposes, is reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival in the US). For example, one of the pack of journalists in attendance (who are permitted to set up camp in the room across the hall) complains to his colleague that they never jump in time for the Evening Edition. Unlike Ace in the Hole, however, Fourteen Hours takes the dubious step of exploring the stories of some of the vast crowd of onlookers that inevitably gathers on the street below the ledge. Grace Kelly (High Noon, Mogambo) makes her feature debut in a small role as a woman on the brink of divorce who has a change of heart during a meeting with her estranged husband (James Warren – The Human Comedy) in an office across the street from the hotel; Jeffrey Hunter (The Great Locomotive Chase) and Debra Paget begin a relationship that would never have been had Cosick not climbed onto the ledge, and the heartless cynicism of a group of impatient cabbies is slowly drained from them as the drama unfolds.
None of these malnourished sub-plots add much to the movie other than to pad out its running time, and it’s somewhat puzzling that a movie about a situation that comes with built-in dramatic tension should need to revert to such ploys. Apparently, Hathaway filmed – and favoured – an alternative ending to the one that was released, but it wasn’t used for a number of reasons. It’s a shame because, without wanting to give too much away, it’s difficult to see how the unused ending could be any weaker than the one we have. Having failed to get under the skin of Cosick for the duration of his time on the ledge, Fourteen Hours ends up giving a metaphorical ‘he’ll be alright’ shrug of its shoulders which leaves the audience sorely dissatisfied. The movie might end when Cosick leaves the ledge, but the real story is just beginning.
(Reviewed 17th January 2016)