Monday, November 30, 2015

Fourteen Hours (1951)

**** out of 5

"If he wants to jump, let him- he's better off.  Everybody's better off."

Henry Hathaway's suspenseful edge-of-the-window drama is as much a predictor of things to come as it is a noir in any real sense.  With the suicidal young man at it center, it points ahead to social dramas about troubled youth-- films like Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, East of Eden, and West Side Story.  But its multiple subplots involving the various players in the drama, and the intercutting with various onlookers and their individual troubles and responses to the drama unfolding far above them also foreshadows the ensemble disaster films like Airport, High and the Mighty, Towering Inferno, and Poseidon Adventure.

There are many notable faces in those crowds below:
Youthful Jeffrey Hunter makes an early impression as a nice guy who tries to pick up a girl in the crowd who catches his eye, pretty young Debra Paget.  A crowd of cab drivers trapped in the traffic snarl, who have a pool going on what time Basehart will jump, include among their number the future famous faces of Ossie Davis and Harvey Lembeck. Grace Kelly makes an indelible impression in her first film role as a woman headed for divorce, who is distracted from the settlement discussions by the drama unfolding in the building across the street. Even future film maverick John Cassavetes has an uncredited bit part in the film.

But the film ultimately belongs to the two people out on the ledge: Paul Douglas and Richard Basehart.  Basehart is magnetic in his embodiment of the terrified and suicidal young man who has edged out onto the balcony of a hotel but can't decide if he wants to jump or not.  Paul Douglas is the street cop who first calls in the incident, and whose honesty and kindness makes him the only person Basehart's character feels safe talking to.  A whole line of family and psychiatric experts (and even, briefly, a crazed evangelist!) try to talk him down, but he refuses to listen to any of them except this simple, unpretentious beat officer.

A crowd full of various and conflicting interests floods the hotel room behind the window where Basehart and Douglas are precariously perched.  Frank Faylen is the bellhop who first discovers that Basehart has gone out on the ledge.  Agnes Moorehead and Robert Keith are Basehart's self-interested and disfunctional parents, called upon to help talk him out of the suicide to which they bear much of the responsibility for driving him. Howard Da Silva is the frustrated police chief, who adds needed notes of humor to the otherwise tense drama. We also have Martin Gabel as Doctor Strauss, who functions largely as a dispenser of exposition, to help the characters and us understand the psychology of what's going through Basehart's mind.  And Barbara Bel Geddes is Basehart's angelic ex-fiancee, who makes an impassioned plea for life and love.

The film has strong notes of social satire; in addition to the gambling cabbies, opportunistic wolves, and voyeuristic throngs, we see harsh portraits of the news media scrambling in at every chance, trying to get the perfect shot, the best camera angles, and the first scoop as the story develops, with dramatic radio and television voices announcing colorful play-by-play descriptions of the unfolding drama with a callous lack of empathy for the human story at the film's center.  Are we participating and perpetuating those attitudes by our enjoyment of the film?  We aren't given a clear answer, but when relief finally comes at the story's close, we are promised by the end titles that police today have means of resolving similar conflicts in the future.  It is a promise that somehow rings hollow, but the story we've witnessed continues to resonate today.

No comments:

Post a Comment