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Friday, 6 November 2009

Fourteen Hours (1951)

Director: Henry Hathaway
Stars: Paul Douglas, Richard Basehart, Barbara Bel Geddes and Debra Paget
TCM's star of the month for November 2009 is Grace Kelly, in celebration of what would have been her 80th birthday on 12th November.
Every actor has to have a first film and Fourteen Hours fills that function for a whole string of people, including Grace Kelly, John Cassavetes and Joyce Van Patten. Kelly only makes page three of the credits, hardly a usual place for her: in her next film she'd be the wife of the lead, ranking higher than Lon Chaney Jr, Frank Morgan and Lee Van Cleef. That was High Noon and it would make her a star. Here she was just a model in New York taking a small part as a woman seeking a divorce but changing her mind and she impresses in her mere couple of scenes. In comparison Cassavetes has a bit part as a reporter that I must have blinked through and Van Patten has only a small role as a girl trying to get to work.

They weren't the only new folk. By comparison to these three, Ossie Davis and John Randolph were old hands, having one other uncredited role each behind them, No Way Out and The Naked City respectively. Jeffrey Hunter was positively established, even though he debuted as Third Plebian in Julius Caesar a year earlier and it would be fifteen full years before he defined for all time just how close anyone can get to stardom without actually making it, playing Captain Pike, the original lead character on Star Trek. Many others were in the early years of their career here, suggesting that many saw the second half of the century as an opportunity to begin a new career.

We get an opening blurb about how fictional the story is, so you know it's based on real events. In 1938 John W Warde jumped seventeen floors to his death from a window ledge outside the Hotel Gotham in New York. I'm not sure that it's the Hotel Gotham that Warde's fictional equivalent climbs out of but we're certainly in New York as that's the Woolworth Building in the background. In fact the filmmakers managed to persuade the city to let them rope off a large section of downtown to become their set. The noise of New York and its townsfolk provide our soundtrack, there being no other score.

The setup is very nicely done. A scared looking man stands on a ledge a couple of floors down from the hotel's roof, ready to jump. We don't even see him climb out of the window, he just disappears on a waiter who promptly tracks him down. About the same time the waiter finds him, a woman screams from a window opposite. A traffic cop calls it in, heads up to the 15th floor and tries to talk him down, only for the deputy police chief to send him packing. By that time the crowds are gathering and they gather large and strong. Everyone wants to watch, some of them waiting for him to jump, some hoping he doesn't and wondering why he felt he had to take such a drastic step.

And like them, we know nothing about him at all. Like them we find out the details gradually. It's St Patrick's Day and the city's trying to get ready for its annual parade. Our jumper booked into the hotel as William E Cook from Chicago, but he's really Robert Cosick. He doesn't want to talk to cops and he threatens to jump if they get close. He had a girl but he broke off their engagement. His parents have longstanding problems that led to divorce. Everyone lies to him. They always put too much ice in cups of water in hotels. He has lots of vague complaints but really we just think he's gay, something that's never stated but adds up as a likelihood. Much of this information comes from Cosick talking to Charlie Dunnigan, that traffic cop. Perhaps it's because the deputy police chief is a idiot and one of the doctors that tries to reason with him looks a little too much like Joe Pesci. Who knows, but it's Dunnigan who's built the rapport and it's Dunnigan who's the only one he'll talk to.
Dunnigan is Paul Douglas, the best thing about this movie though bizarrely one of the least names in it to posterity. He'd made his first film in 1935 but only got serious in 1949 when he started building a lot of credits. I've seen him before but probably only in Clash By Night and he didn't stick in my memory. I believe that's because he's such an everyman, utterly unlike your usual movie star. Here he's very believable as a good natured traffic cop, talkative and reliable but hardly a great brain. While all the other actors act around him, he merely exudes his character, as if he was just some everyday guy who walked in off the street and looked right for the part.

Richard Basehart is decent as Robert Cosick, though we don't quite believe that he's been standing out on that ledge for fourteen hours. If he had been, his legs must have been jelly and there would have been plenty of opportunities for the film to end early. The best actor in the film is Agnes Moorehead as Christine Hill Cosick, his primadonna mother, who in many ways built him up to the incident because of who she is. Robert Keith plays her estranged husband. Cosick's fiancee Virginia is Barbara Bel Geddes, who always looks younger than I expect when I see her on film, even though her entire filmography is hardly new. She retired from the big screen in 1971, the year I was born and seven full years before she ever started on Dallas. Strangely I saw her first film recently, The Long Night, which came to mind often here, not just because of her presence but because of the frequent looks down from a high building at a gathered crowd in the street outside.

It's a worthy film, inventive enough to survive 92 minutes of a man standing on a window ledge without making us want to jump off one, and it's certainly a good place for so many people to start out their careers in. I have no doubt it's the most inconsequential picture in Grace Kelly's brief career but having seen eight of her eleven films thus far, I'd put it above at least High Society in quality. That said, it's disposable compared to what she'd quickly move on to, with High Noon, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window among her next four films. John Cassavetes would go on to three Oscar nominations, one each for acting, writing and directing, but for a different film each time. That puts him in a very exclusive club with only seven members. Joyce Van Patten, in comparison, didn't do much on film but became a frequent and popular television actress who is still going strong today. Who'd have thought in 1951 that this review would have taken such a focus as I've just taken here?

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