Fourteen Hours (1951)
Starring Paul Douglas, Richard Basehart, Barbara Bel Geddes, Debra Paget, Agnes Moorehead, Jeffrey Hunter, Grace Kelly, Jeff Corey, Harvey Lembeck, Ossie Davis and Gordon Gebert. Directed by Henry Hathaway. From 20th Century-Fox.
A waiter delivers room service to a man staying on the 15th floor of a hotel. Before he can hand the man his change, the man is gone. The waiter sees the drapes blowing by an open window. He pokes his head out the window and sees that the man is now standing on the ledge. What follows is fourteen hours of tense negotiation between the mentally disturbed ‘man on the ledge’ (Richard Basehart) and an ordinary beat cop (Paul Stewart).
That is basically all that happens in Henry Hathaway’s Fourteen Hours but it translates to a tense 92 minutes filled with psychological case studies, brisk pacing, excellent camerawork and a veritable feast of recognizable faces in almost every role.
To start even before the beginning, Fourteen Hours is based on a 1938 magazine article in The New Yorker that told the sad tale of John William Warde. On a warm Tuesday afternoon in July, Warde was sitting with his sister and a group of friends on the 17th floor of the Gotham Hotel in Manhattan. Something his sister said set the clinically depressed Warde off and he dashed for an open window and went out on the ledge where he stayed for eleven hours. His sister tried to get him to come in to no avail. Policeman Charles V. Glasco suggested to his sergeant that he could pose as a bellboy and try to convince Warde to come in off the ledge. Glasco had nearly succeeded when a photographer burst into the room. This caused Warde to jump, feet first. He struck the glass marquee of the hotel and then landed, dead, on the sidewalk. As he jumped, the 10,000 people who had gathered around the intersection were heard to say in unison “Here he comes!” before there was silence as he landed on the ground.
Fox purchased the article from The New Yorker but changed the title from The Man on the Ledge after a request from Warde’s mother. Howard Hawks was asked to direct but refused because of the subject matter. Henry Hathaway took charge of the project. At this point, Hathaway had been directing since the early ’30’s and had been responsible for such films as Kiss of Death and Call Northside 777. He filmed an ending for Fourteen Hours depicting the man’s leap to his death but this was quickly reconsidered. While it would have been in keeping with the bleak endings of films noir of the time, audiences of 1951 would have found it extremely hard to take. In additional, there had been a tragedy close to home that made the studio insist on an alternate ending. On the very day that Fourteen Hours previewed, the daughter of the president of Fox, Spyros Skouras, jumped from a building to her death. Skouras then wanted the film shelved but settled for the shooting of a new ending.
Hathaway’s deft touch is all over this film. You’ll notice a great shot of a reflection in a window at about the 36 minute mark and there are various excellent shots and camera angles employed. In some of the process shots of Basehart and Stewart talking at the window, Hathaway shows people hanging out of windows in adjacent buildings watching the two. The film depicts all the sensation of a live news event. The spotlights are used well as they climb up the building and illuminate the principals.
“If I had my M2, I could knock him off from here. Easy.” The cabbies that gather around to watch are an interesting element. First of all, all the actors playing the cabbies are uncredited although you can easily spot Harvey Lembeck, Ossie Davis (points for casting a black man) and Henry Slate. Here we see depicted the post-war man. One of the first things we hear the cabbies say – the jarring quote above – references their shared experiences in the war. You could even go so far as to say that the cabbie who brags on his skill as a sniper is lamenting the fact that here and now he is just a hack but back in the service he possessed deadly and useful skills. They certainly are a group of men jaded by their experiences. The cabbies get a bet going, a pool in which they select the time when the ledge-sitter will take his plunge. It’s interesting to watch the cabbies serve as a sort of Greek chorus and to see them begin to feel guilty about betting on a man’s death. As the hours drag on, they eventually lose their taste for the sport and disperse.
The cast of Fourteen Hours is remarkable, really. I love a film that has even small roles played by faces you recognize. There are many to watch out for is this movie. Paul Stewart plays Police Officer Charlie Dunnigan. Stewart was a working class actor who was like a poor man’s Broderick Crawford. Paul had previously appeared on Broadway where he originated the role of Harry Brock in Born Yesterday – the role Crawford would play on screen – and in the films A Letter to Three Wives and The Big Lift. He was married five times – which may have contributed to his death at 52 in 1959. At his passing, he had agreed to take the role of Jeff Sheldrake in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. The role ultimately went to Fred MacMurray. If you watch the end of Fourteen Hours carefully, you will see that Charlie Dunnigan’s son is played by Gordon Gebert who had a much more substantial role two years earlier in the delightful Holiday Affair as Janet Leigh’s son. You’ll also notice at the end, when Basehart’s character is safe in bed, Dunnigan gets ready to go home and the other cops look at him admiringly in the hallway. Nice touch. You get a sense that these two principals shared an experience not unlike Officer John McLane and Sgt. Al Powell did in Die Hard.
Richard Basehart garnered critical acclaim and the Best Actor award from the National Board of Review for his portrayal of Robert Cosick. It is indeed uncomfortable to watch Basehart as he trembles and sways on the ledge. He draws you in and makes you sympathize with him. While filming Fourteen Hours, Basehart’s wife, costume designer Stephanie Klein, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Sadly, she died following surgery while the film was still in production. Soon after his first wife’s death, however, Basehart married Italian actress Valentina Cortese (1923-2019) with whom he had a son, Jackie Basehart. Jackie enjoyed a career as a sought-after actor in Italian cinema before contracting a rare disease that resulted in difficulty swallowing, obesity and several hospitalizations. Valentina Cortese had the unenviable task of burying her son when he died in 2018, aged 63. Richard Basehart had previously been seen in He Walked By Night and his work in Fourteen Hours was noticed by Frederico Fellini who gave Basehart his best known film role in 1954’s La Strada. He went on to roles in Moby Dick, Chato’s Land and Being There. He may be best known for his work on television in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and as the narrator of the 1980’s series Knight Rider.
Barbara Bel Geddes has a role as Cosick’s fiancee, Virginia. Bel Geddes is photographed wonderfully in this film and while she may not be a beauty in the Hedy Lamarr tradition, she appears luminous here and plays her part well. The Broadway actress came to Hollywood in 1947 and soon garnered an Academy Award nomination for I Remember Mama. She appeared in Fourteen Hours and then returned to Broadway where she originated the role of Maggie “the Cat” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof earning the first of her two Tony Award noms. She did not return to Hollywood until 1958 when she took a memorable turn as Midge in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, called by some the greatest film ever made. She ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee for a time but bounced back. Later, she became best known for her portrayal of Miss Ellie Ewing on the long-running prime time soap opera, Dallas.
Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter provide a lovely alternate plot line playing two spectators on the street below. Paget catches Hunter’s eye and he approaches her cold, asking if she’d like a mint. In a nice, old school touch, Deb refuses by saying “I don’t believe we are acquainted”. Hunter persists successfully. These two are cute but the characters are not simply their for sweetness. It is these two we see at the end of the film. It’s been an emotional roller coaster for all involved for fourteen long hours. As the two young people begin to walk away, Deb becomes emotional, expressing the thoughts and feelings of many of the participants. Hunter comforts her as they walk away with a cop on horseback dismissing the crowd with a poignant instruction: “Go home and take care of your own kids!”. The music comes up and the ending is unlike most film noir endings and, indeed, unlike the ending of the real life story this is based on.
Debra Paget – one of the flat-out prettiest actresses of the era and still with us at age 85 – had appeared in small roles in a few films prior to this one and went on to feature in Elvis Presley‘s first film (and playing, technically, his only on-screen wife). She also went on to date Howard Hughes and to appear in small-to-medium-sized roles in films such as Demetrius and the Gladiators and The Ten Commandments before finishing her relatively short career working in horror films with Roger Corman. Jeffrey Hunter made his film debut in Fourteen Hours. He would go on to a sturdy career making such films as The Searchers and King of Kings. He may be best known for portraying Capt. Christopher Pike, who preceded Capt. James T. Kirk as captain of the USS Enterprise on TV’s Star Trek.
Another performer debuted in Fourteen Hours. Henry Hathaway had noticed Grace Kelly on television and offered her the small role of Mrs. Louise Ann Fuller, a young wife in conference with her divorce lawyer in a neighbouring building. She is taken by the sorrows of Cosick – sorrows that lead him to the brink of suicide – which lead her to reassess her life and marriage. Kelly comes off fine although she is presented unglamourously. She was noticed on set by Gary Cooper who would recommend her for her next film, High Noon, which made her a star.
As I’ve said, the rest of the cast is notable. Agnes Moorehead and Martin Gabel both received extensive stage training as part of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Moorehead ably portrays Cosick’s harried and guilt-ridden mother. Gabel’s role as one of the two psychiatrists on hand is significant. Gabel’s lines serve to explain the mental issues that Cosick is dealing with. He takes a close look at Cosick’s relationship with his parents. (Robert Keith plays the father) The parents have divorced and there is a lot of ill will. Cosick has been used in the battle between the two. When an hysterical Mrs. Cosick has to be dragged away from talking to Cosick at the window, one of the cops says “No wonder he’s cuckoo!”. This goes a long way to explain the things that can happen to children of divorce and unhappy homes. Gabel’s character, Dr. Strauss, even goes so far as to bring in Oedipus as he explains that “all children – boys – are in love with their mother, romantically”. While most kids get over it, Dr. Strauss explains, Cosick couldn’t and began to hate his father which he knew to be wrong so he started hating himself. This must’ve been pretty heavy stuff for audiences to handle in 1951.
Moorehead, as we know, played the mother of Charles Foster Kane and would go on to countless other screen credits. Gabel would play opposite Frank Sinatra as an unlikely crime boss in 1968’s Lady in Cement. Later, he would also feature in Frank’s TV movie, Contract on Cherry Street (1977) and then finish his film career opposite Frank again in 1980’s The First Deadly Sin.
Howard Da Silva (The Lost Weekend and two The Great Gatsby‘s) plays Dunnigan’s boss and keep a sharp eye out for many other familiar faces: Frank Faylen (It’s a Wonderful Life), Jeff Corey (Bird on a Wire), Brad Dexter (The Magnificent Seven), Joyce Van Patten (St. Elmo’s Fire), John Cassavettes (The Dirty Dozen), Brian Keith (TV’s Family Affair, son of Robert), Richard Beymer (West Side Story), Willard Waterman (radio’s The Great Gildersleeve), Janice Rule (The Ambushers), Leif Erickson (Roustabout) and John Randolph (National Lampoon’s ‘Christmas Vacation’).
Fourteen Hours is a wonderfully made film with the added bonus of a cast full of faces you’ll recognize. This film is hard to find on DVD but there are a few vendors at Amazon that’ll sell you one but it ain’t cheap.