Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fox is starting to apply rather liberal rules to its Fox Film Noir series, as its Shock comes off as a proto- horror film, while this tense urban thriller is conspicuously short on noir qualities. A man threatens to kill himself by leaping from a tall building. City officials rally with varying degrees of competence to save him. A fascinated public gawks, interferes, or takes the episode as yet another sideshow in the big city.
As a conventional thriller, Fourteen Hours need apologize for nothing. It has entertaining characters and an approach that never strains credibility. And as a showcase for acting talent, circa 1951, it's a regular smorgasbord.
Robert Cosick (Richard Basehart) threatens to jump from a ledge on the fifteenth floor of the Hotel Rodney. Traffic cop Charlie Dunnigan (Paul Douglas) remains the only person he's willing to talk to, even after the police bring in doctors, experts, and his mother Christine (Agnes Moorehead). The spectacle becomes a TV marathon as hundreds of people line the sidewalks ... including prospective sweethearts Ruth and Danny (Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter) and a young couple headed for divorce court, Mr. and Mrs. Fuller (Grace Kelly and Leif Erickson). Police tricks fail and Dunnigan only barely retains Cosick's confidence, until Cosick's ex-fiancée is located, Virginia Foster (Bel Geddes).
So why isn't Fourteen Hours a film noir? Because it isn't about crime, alienation or a disaffected emotional state. Its hero is in a mental trap, but the film never gets at its causes or expresses the trap in visual terms. Fourteen Hours bears a superficial resemblance to Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival) of the same year, but its focus could not be more different from that classic. In Wilder's film the man in jeopardy is kept there by a reporter who purposely milks the situation for fame and money. The media circus in Ace grows like a cancer around the trapped man, a manifestation of a society so hot to make a dollar that it will prey upon false sympathy for a doomed man. The emphasis is on the venal reporter and his pitiful attempt to atone for his crime.
Commentator Foster Hirsch starts out with the statement that Fourteen Hours is a great unheralded noir and then later says he doesn't think it is "mainstream noir" because no crime is involved. Well, Cosick's figurative crime is just as real as any statute on the books: He's a freak that doesn't fit into his proper slot in society.
Richard Basehart was an appreciated but under-used talent at this time, an acting dynamo for whom Fox couldn't find great roles. As Cosick, Basehart has to stand in the same spot for almost 90 minutes, and he finds ways of keeping his character alive and interesting. Basehart sweats, shivers and frets about his final decision, and at times seems like a less affected James Dean in his acting choices: He has vulnerability and definite "hurt" quality. Cosick reaches out for contact in his desire to speak only to Officer Dunnigan, even after the cop has tried to trick him into coming inside or being grabbed by other policemen. We never get a clear handle on what's eating Cosick, although there are plenty of hints -- a grasping mother (excellent atypical work by Agnes Moorehead), a guilty father (Robert Keith), a puzzled girlfriend. Cosick considers himself a failure, is coddled by his mother and ignored by his father, and finally breaks off an engagement to consider suicide ... all clues that his "problem" might be homosexuality, or perhaps just the fear of it.
Unlike Ace in the Hole society isn't being criticized here. Everyone in Fourteen Hours means poor Robert Cosick well, even the pushy reporters and the wacko religious nut that interfere with rescue efforts. The television people (including LA TV personality George Putnam) are just doing their jobs; no effort is made to indict them as 'responsible' for Cosick's plight. In a way, John Paxton's screenplay places limits on its sympathy for Cosick, who has brought the city to a standstill on St. Patrick's day, jammed several blocks of street traffic and placed undue strain on a number of basically good civil servants, especially Charlie Dunnigan, a traffic cop suddenly forced to become a counselor for a potential. Cosick is gumming up the gears of the city, and it is finally Dunnigan that loses his patience, chewing out Cosick and practically dares him to just jump and get it over with. If anything, Fourteen Hours has a veiled contempt for Cosick. We observe his isolation from the outside only. Cosick starts and ends as a tragic but undefined problem character.
Fourteen Hours orchestrates a clever flurry of faces and personalities around the man on the window ledge, creating a lively picture of New York in 1951 to balance the amusing portrait in the later The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three. Howard da Silva's deputy chief is impatient but caring, and the hotel room is jammed with busybodies, nosy reporters and police functionaries. Two psychiatrists analyze the situation well but provide no solution for Cosick's problem. A nervy TV man tries to stick a microphone out on the window ledge, and a deranged preacher interferes with even more serious consequences. Even Cosick's selfish, attention-hungry mother adds to the atmosphere of confusion.
Out on the street nobody is yelling, "Jump," but everybody is apparently thinking it. Some cab drivers (including Harvey Lembeck and Ossie Davis) form a betting pool on the time of the Big Dive, and TV men set up bird's-eye cameras to document every detail of Cosick's ordeal. Fourteen Hours arranges two extra "romantic" sub-plots that seem like opportunistic screen trials for some up-and-coming hopefuls. Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter meet-cute while gawking at the spectacle, and even walk off into the night together in the final scene, giving us the rather screwy idea that the spectacle of loser-lover Cosick has kindled a compensating romance among 'normal' people. If we care about Cosick at all, this subplot isn't very comforting. Even more tawdry is the sight of Grace Kelly (in her first screen appearance) watching the drama from her divorce settlement meeting in an adjoining building. Shaken by Cosick's plight, she changes her mind and decides to give her marriage to Leif Erickson one more try. These "healthy" alternatives add weight to the film's idea that poor Cosick is a "sick" gay man -- the film offers us three positive heterosexual relationships while banishing Cosick to a sexual limbo for aberrant males. 1
The sub-plots serve mostly to make Fourteen Hours a top-level actor-watching opportunity. Besides the above-mentioned talent, there's Jeff Corey (a cop), Martin Gabel (the psychiatrist), Frank Faylen (the hotel waiter) and Brad Dexter (a reporter). Sharp eyes may catch John McGuire, Joyce Van Patten, Alix Talton, and John Randolph. Said to be in the show but apparently really hidden are Richard Beymer, John Cassavetes, Brian Keith, and maybe even Janice Rule!
Commentator Hirsch doesn't mention a persistent story about the conclusion of Fourteen Hours. It is said that a version was previewed, or perhaps briefly released, in which Robert Cosick jumps or falls to his death. As evidence, it is claimed that after Cosick plummets there are no shots of Basehart, only a double, because the actor was not available. A fairly extensive re-shoot would be required, as most everything from that moment on is positive in tone, except perhaps the shot of the street cleaning machine washing away the trash.
Because I'm sure Mr. Hirsch is aware of the (merely rumored?) alternate ending, perhaps it never happened, although it's hard to believe that, if the ending we see is the original, the filmmakers wouldn't take a minute for a quick scene between Bel Geddes and Basehart. Or did Fox not want the story told on the commentary for legal reasons? Perhaps a reader with access to documentation could resolve this for us.
Fox's DVD of Fourteen Hours is a fine transfer of well-preserved film elements. Joe MacDonald's crisp photography makes even the extensive rear projection and matte-work look good. Foster Hirsch's informative commentary tells the story of the film from its true-life inspiration (a suicide in 1938) to his conclusion that the film is really about a troubled gay man.
The extras include a publicity pressbook with an interesting 'interactive' function that allows one to pick out individual ad mats for enlargement. The trailer doesn't use the 'don't tell the ending' copy from the trade ads, which gives rise to a great idea. Why not send two last reels to each theater, one where Cossick jumps and one in which he is saved? They could be alternated on screen, sending the public out with two versions to argue over. The resulting confusion would guarantee that everyone would be talking about Fourteen Hours
The title is actually written 14 Hours on printed material and Fourteen Hours on the film itself. The box copy repeats a limp definition of Film Noir, and a sloppily written printed insert misspells screenwriter John Paxton's name. The text starts out by telling us that many of the film's actors appeared in earlier films noir, and includes among them A Letter to Three Wives and Showboat!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fourteen Hours rates:
Supplements: pressbook gallery, trailer, Commentary by Foster Hirsch
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 13, 2006
1. Savant tends to frown when film analysts detect gay subtexts in everything projected on a screen. Mr. Hirsch's arguments in this case are pretty darn convincing. Douglas' Dunnigan tries to coax Cosick to "come out" (to his place for Sunday lunch) with masculine talk of baseball and beer. Cosick declines the invitation, unable to voice his reason why. We're also given no reason to feel that Cosick and his girlfriend Virginia have any chance of getting back together. Contrast this with the crazy situation 23 years later in Dog Day Afternoon, when a man in a similar siege situation tells the cops that he has robbed a bank to finance a sex-change operation for his trans-sexual (is that accurate?) boyfriend!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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