Saturday, July 10, 2010

Suspense 15 floors up

One of the great things about DVDs is the rerelease of hundreds, if not thousands of films that many of us have never seen or in some cases, even heard of. That was the case for me with Fourteen Hours (1951) directed by Henry Hathaway. I picked this up at my local library, knowing nothing about it, except that it was released under the Fox Film Noir banner and as I love this genre, I thought I'd give it a try.

I'm pleased I did and I'm glad I knew so little about this work, as it is a riveting film about a man who threatens to jump off the ledge of his 15th floor hotel room in Manhattan. The film was written by John Paxton who adapted a 1949 New Yorker story by Joel Sayre about a real-life incident in 1938 concerning the drama of John William Warde, who held New Yorkers captive for most of a day when he threatened to jump from the 17th floor of his hotel.

What is remarkable about this film is the fact that most of the action takes place on that ledge (or just a few feet away in the safety of the man's room.). We know we are watching a movie, so we know that the man is not actually 15 floors up, facing possible death, yet the technical work - matte paintings and process shots - is of such high caliber, that we feel the vertigo of this man above the streets of New York, even though the film was largely shot in a Hollywood studio.

I also like the fact that the story is not sensationalized, as the film is more or less a cat and mouse game between the would-be jumper (wonderfully underplayed by Richard Basehart) and a street-smart, humble policeman named Charlie Dunnigan (charmingly played by Paul Douglas) who spends much of the film on the ledge trying to reason with the man about why he should not jump.

At first, we know nothing of this man and why he wants to take his life; he says almost nothing to Dunnigan, not even his name. Dunnigan works to gain the man's trust by offering him a glass of water; he accepts, but immediately wonders if anything has been added to the water to affect his behavior. This guy, as desperate as he is, stays ahead of Dunnigan and others (police officials, a psychiatrist, hotel employees) by constantly keeping them off their guard.

We soon find out the character's name is Robert Cosick, but it might as well be Robert Smith or Bill Jones, as the identity of the name is a plot device to bring the man's parents and former fiancé into the action. This takes up much of the seond half of the film, as we see how his parents - an overbearing mother and a recluse father - did much to ruin his psyche. Lacking self-confidence, he did not see himself worthy of a bride, so he now sees suicide as the only way out.

This psychological situation helps explain things, but it is the mano-a-mano conversations between Cosick and Dunnigan that are the strongest things about this drama. After an inital encounter on the ledge, Dunnigan is told to go back to the street by his commanding officer. Cosick hates policemen in general, but found Dunnigan understanding to his plight, so he demands that Dunnigan returns to the ledge so they can talk. Perched betwen the window and the ledge, Dunnigan questions Cosick why he asked for him. "Everybody lies to me," is his reply. Dunnigan tells him that he wants to help and it is his fast thinking during their conversations that begin Cosick thinking about small things, briefly taking his mind off death.

The film also has things to say about media and the public and how they treat these incidents. We see thousands of people gather below only minutes after this ordeal begins and of course, the television cameras are there to cover every detail. One woman tells her business associate that she refuses to head to work while all this is going on. "What if he jumps?" is her response to being late for work. Every time a new person is introduced and brought to Cosick's room to plead with him not to jump, we see photographers rushing to grab their camera, as this might be THE person who gets him to come back in - or else the person who fails and indirectly causes him to jump. Talk about drama! This is nicely felt in Hathaway's subtle direction and like the rest of the film, it's presented in a restrained manner.

Hathaway's direction is excellent - straightforward and tight, adding to the tension of the basic drama. Basic things such as Dunnigan giving Cosick a glass of water or a cigarette are directed very well, as we see the difficulty of a simple thing like this when the location is on a 15th floor ledge. Also, during one scene when Cosick slips and almost falls, we are taken aback - my heart was pounding as I'm sure most everyone who sees this scene will be. Combining this drama within a drama with the excellent photography makes this tense film even more gripping (Joe Mac Donald contributed the sparkling black and white cinematography).

The formula for this film is a good one, but it is the package of taut direction, first-rate production and above all, the emerging trust and newly formed friendship of the two main characters that makes Fourteen Hours such an absorbing and rewarding experience.

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