Fourteen Hours (1951)

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the time it takes a room service waiter to get some change and turn around again, a man crawls out on the window ledge, threatening to jump to his death. It may be marketed as a film noir, but I think it’s more accurate to simply call Fourteen Hours a drama, based on a real-life incident a few decades before the film was made. The film switches between a few different bystanders in the growing crowd on the street — which includes Jeffrey Hunter, for those Star Trek fans out there, and a first film appearance for Grace Kelly — and Robert Cosick (Richard Basehart) on the ledge, as the character is visited by various elements from his past, all produced by the police under the assumption they’ll be able to talk him down.

The performances are all excellent, particularly Richard Basehart as the disturbed young man and Paul Douglas as a likeable cop that does fairly well getting through to him and creating a certain amount of trust. The atmosphere and production values are both outstanding, and the film does a particularly striking job of establishing a quiet, almost desolate early morning city in the first few moments, and building towards a climax with hundreds watching the drama unfold while a handful of briefly sketched but well-acted characters making clumsy attempts to help. It’s like an orchestral piece that begins with a few sleepy notes and builds to a riveting finish.

I don’t know what it is that draws me to films that use a simple narrative framework to find a particular focus, but much like Westerns, I think the straightforward structure helps to heighten the impact of the film. The only thing that reminds the viewer it’s a film and removes the viewer from the drama somewhat is the presence of several vaguely creepy psychologists, impeccably dressed and hanging around making pronouncements nobody challenges in the slightest. It feels a bit standard for mainstream American films of the 1950s to have an unquestionable professional, of one kind or another. In science-fiction films, he’s the one smoking a pipe, examining the alien body and explaining how their advanced technology works as though he’s seen all this a few times before. And I choose my pronoun carefully, because it’s never a woman. At the same time, these dated elements don’t ruin the film, which has interesting, but not overly pat statements to make about our broken methods, and our collective tendency to sometimes produce broken people. Not all of them are on a window ledge in the film, but others are there too. Fourteen Hours may be remembered mainly as the first Grace Kelly film, but it also deserves to be remembered as a compelling and nearly flawless drama.

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