Fourteen Hours (1951)- Henry Hathaway

 ★★★★★

 

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?  Paul Douglas in "Fourteen Hours" (1951)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. Richard Basehart and Barbara Bel Geddes in "Fourteen Hours" (1951)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, Richard Basehart in "Fourteen Hours" (1951)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 Richard Basehart and Paul Douglas in "Fourteen Hours" (1951)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.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

 ★★★★

 

Billy Wilder is one of the few directors who was actually appreciated in his own time. Everyone seemed to know that he was talented, and hisAce in the Hole (1951) films often received positive reviews as well as financial success. Of course there is always the exception, even for Billy Wilder. “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) was released to enormous acclaim, and then it was later nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Wilder must have felt as if he was on the top of the world, as it was his third Best Picture nominee in the last seven years. With his established record for superior filmmaking, Wilder set out to make a movie that was bold and daring. The result was the drama film, “Ace in the Hole” (1951), which was not only bold and daring, but also Wilder’s biggest failure.

In this film, Kirk Douglas plays a washed-up newspaperman named Chuck Tatum. He has been fired from 11 of the top newspapers in the country for lying, manipulating, drinking and sleeping with his bosses’ wives. Chuck finds himself in New Mexico, where his car breaks down and leaves him penniless. He wanders into the local newspaper and openly tells the boss that he is a great newspaperman, with a checkered past. He is willing to work well below his worth price in order to try to earn back some attention from a larger newspaper.

A year later, Chuck is still doing meaningless stories day after day, until he finally runs across a curio shop picturesquely located in front of Ace in the Hole (1951) some old Indian dwellings. The shop’s owner, Leo (Richard Benedict), was digging for Indian artifacts and became trapped inside the cave. Chuck sees the potential for a story and agrees to help, but his motivations aren’t on the well being of Leo, but on his own career.

Chuck wants to prolong the rescue in order to drive up the popularity of the story, so he makes an under the table deal with the local sheriff to drill from the top of the rock, rather than securing the tunnel. Now instead of getting Leo out in a couple of days, it will take a whole week. Chuck also meets Leo’s wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling). She is fed up with life in New Mexico and wants to run away. Chuck convinces her that if she stays and allows him to embellish her side of the story, spectators will come, and her little shop will make a fortune, allowing her to be Ace in the Hole (1951)financially secure after Leo gets out.

Of course things go better than could be expected for Chuck, as things continue to get worse for Leo. The cliff dwelling becomes a tourist attraction and people flock to them by the hundreds. At one point it gets so out of control that a carnival even sets up their rides in order to entertain the people while they wait. People come from miles around, not to eat the food or ride the rides, but to bare witness to the human drama that is unfolding before them.

At the beginning of this page I said that this film was a failure, and in many ways that is true. The critics were irritated with Wilder’s depiction of the callous and manipulating media, and audiences didn’t identify with any of the “regular” people in the film, who seemed to be obsessed with watching everything unfold. Perhaps they were all too blind (or inept) to see the accuracy of this glorious film. Then again, what if they were all right? What if in 1951 the media didn’t manipulate stories for their own benefit?  And perhaps back then people didn’t flock to events of travesty, just to say that they were a part of the drama. In today’s world we expect our media to be out of control and ridiculous, and I don’t think Ace in the Hole (1951)anyone is going to attempt to say that us “regular” people don’t like to be involved in real life drama. After all, if reality television has proved anything, it’s that we love to watch people like us in extraordinary situations.

It’s too bad that people didn’t appreciate this film in its time, because much like everything else that Wilder touched in the 1950’s, it’s a brilliant film. Kirk Douglas fits perfectly into his cocky, bright-eyed character, and even though you want to hate him, his attitude and natural charisma just make it so darn hard. What really drives the film home is the deliciously written script. Douglas gets most of the good lines, as he is the focal point of the film, but every character seems to have been blessed with an abundance of wit and humor, even in serious situations.

So here we are 60 years after the release of “Ace in the Hole”, and instead of the film being unrealistic, it’s become an accurate depiction of the future. I guess that’s just one more thing to add to Billy Wilder’s resume: writer, director, producer, clairvoyant.