The idea of a film centered around one desperate man standing on the ledge of a New York building is a difficult one because there are so many unanswered questions that arise. How do you keep the audience entertained when, in all actuality, very little is happening? How do you deal with a main character that just stands there, and in fact, doesn’t even really want to talk to anyone? And finally, what happens at the end of the film? All of these questions had to have played heavily on director Henry Hathaway’s mind when filming his noir, suspense drama, “Fourteen Hours” (1951), but fortunately his talent for great storytelling and an extensive cast of sensational actors help turn this possibly entertaining film into a memorable movie, with an exorbitant amount of humanity under the surface.
In a New York City hotel, an emotionally tormented young man named Robert (Richard Basehart) steps out his window onto the ledge. The moment of desperation is seen from the street below by a traffic cop, Charlie (Paul Douglas). Charlie rushes up to the room where he sits on the ledge as well, trying patiently to get Robert to come back inside.
The event turns into a circus, with people filling the streets below, engrossed by the human drama that has presented itself to them. Taxi drivers place bets on what time he will jump, people walking to work stop, frozen, waiting to see what will happen. Even the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is cancelled. Obviously with a title like “Fourteen Hours”, you can guess that things aren’t resolved quickly, as every step towards a resolution just seems to make things worse.
The acting in this movie is the kind of stuff that directors dream about. Richard Basehart gives a towering performance as the sad, mentally unstable young man at his own personal crossroad. It amazes me how intense he is without being able to move more than a couple of inches the entire picture. He acts through his expressions. He eyes speak for him (his fear, his anger, and regret) present themselves with little dialogue and almost no physicality. It’s Paul Douglas who does most of the talking. The majority of his dialogue goes unanswered…but he keeps talking anyway. He is the driving force of the script, but being an amazing actor, he knows that he can’t take the focus off of Basehart, so Douglas keeps his perfect performance controlled.
The aspect that helps “Fourteen Hours” to shine is the inclusion of sub-plots that transpire during the 14 hours, and the performances given by the enormous cast of supporting players. Both of Robert’s parents (Agnes Moorehead & Robert Keith) show up to “help”, but end up bringing back years of family dysfunction and drama. His former fiance (Barbara Bel Geddes) also arrives, with Bel Geddes giving a brief, but touchingly memorable performance. And then there are all the individuals involved indirectly, whether down on the street or hiding in the hotel, trying to come up with new ideas; Howard Da Silva as the police chief, Martin Gabel as a psychiatrist, Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget as two strangers who meet on the street, even Grace Kelly shows up in her screen debut as a woman in the midst of a divorce, who reconsiders after witnessing Robert’s plight. Everyone who appears on the screen adds to the film’s intensity by acting a human as possible.
It’s been said that “Fourteen Hours” is, possibly, Henry Hathaway’s best film. As a fan of westerns and film noir (both of which he made in abundance), it would be hard to pick which one of his classic pieces of cinema is “best”. He spent an entire career making great movies that all continue to be enthralling because of his underrated skill as a director, and his uncanny ability to entertain an audience. “Fourteen Hours” is a unique film for him, and it is obvious that he was excited at the challenges that filming this type of story would offer. Although it has faded in popularity over the years, it is a film that deserves to be revisited and appreciated by a new audience.
Although “Fourteen Hours” goes out of its way to tell the audience that it wasn’t based on real events, the screenplay (masterfully penned by John Paxton) was based on an article in The New Yorker by Joel Sayre, who was in fact writing about the suicide of John William Warde in 1938. The details are quite different, but it did (unfortunately) serve as inspiration.