Fourteen Hours (1951) – A Review


A review of the 1951 film noir drama Fourteen Hours about a suicidal man on the ledge of a building starring Richard Basehart and Paul Douglas

Fourteen Hours 1951 film noir drama

New York City is gripped by a tense drama that unfolds fifteen stories above the street!

It’s St. Patrick’s Day in New York City when a man (Richard Basehart) steps out onto the narrow ledge of the seventeenth floor of a hotel. Immediately street cop Paul Dunnigan (Paul Douglas) is on the scene. Rushing to the man’s room he learns the potential jumper doesn’t want the police near him. Quickly ditching his uniform Dunnigan poses as a resident of the hotel in the hope of luring the man back into the room.

Meanwhile, on the streets below panic and curiosity captivate the city by the bizarre scene. Cops scramble to hold back the crowds. The media frantically attempts to get as much information as they can to report the story. The jumper is soon identified as Robert Cosick, but his reasons for wanting to jump remain a mystery. Now only agreeing to talk with Dunnigan, the two strike up a rapport with Dunnigan tasked to save the man.

The police rescue squad swarms the building, psychiatrists offer their theories, Cosick’s maladjusted parents plead with their son and his ex-fiancee arrives to talk him down. The swelling crowds and reporters await the final outcome of this suspenseful saga that will last fourteen hours.

This is such a terrific movie. It’s a real small gem.

Fourteen Hours 1951 Richard Basehart Paul Douglas noir thrillerDespite a disclaimer saying Fourteen Hours is entirely fictional, the film is based on a real life incident that occurred in 1938. The suicide of John William Warde from the seventeenth floor of a NYC hotel inspired a short story that the film was based. The film’s original title ‘Man On A Ledge’ was changed by the request of Warde’s widow. 20th Century Fox President Darryl F. Zanuck even considered changing the location of the film to Chicago or Philadelphia to distance it from the true story of Warde.

It’s such a simple premise, essentially a one-location (one very perilous location) story and it held my attention from the opening minutes right to the end. Everything clicks in this – the script, the direction, the actors, it’s a real homerun.

The setup is pretty much all you need to know, describing anymore could dissipate the tension that the film manages to wrack up.

Richard-Basehart-Fourteen-Hours-1951-film-noir-thrillerOne of the things that a story like this needs is convincing the audience that this is really taking place high above the asphalt and with one slip Basehart could drop to his death. Being a 1951 film you might think that it would have some shaky production values to pull off this feat viewed from today. Hearing this is a 1951 film one might suspect they would feel like they’re watching an actor on a fake building facade a few feet off the stage floor and it’s all shot very flat. But it really manages to sell the scene.

Fourteen Hours 1951 noir dramaThere are little touches with wisps of wind hitting the actors, the dull sounds of the city in the background. The background projections and perspective shots director Henry Hathaway uses, the dizzying dutch angles, along with the actual location shooting that was done make it all seamlessly work.

It does a great job that you’re experiencing this unexpected event as all the characters are right there on the side of this hotel. The movie deservedly got a Best Art Direction nom.

As Dunnigan tries to gain Basehart’s trust psychiatrists advise him and offer up some theories as to why this guy has stepped onto the ledge. You know, there’s a lot of mommy issues going on. It kind of sounds like elementary analyzing today. There’s also some allusions to this jumper being a possible troubled veteran.

The police force attempt their own ways of grabbing Basehart and securing him with their own plans. The drama begins to spread out to other characters watching this unfold. This is obviously a newsworthy event so reporters come jumping all over to cover it. It’s amusing to see how a 1951 breaking news story looks being reported from today’s perspective. It’s very much similar as you’d expect to see happen today, only with antiquated, bulkier equipment.

It’s a slight stretch the cops would let reporters be milling about outside the hotel room door though. The reporters are running into the room with their microphones and stuff. I think the police would probably clear the entire floor, but what the heck a little artistic license is ok. One touch I love in old movies is when reporters were identified with little ‘press’ cards stuck into their hats. Such an old school stylish thing I always enjoy seeing.

Fourteen Hours 14 1951 noir thrillerSome of the side stories work better than others. Cynical taxi drivers make bets on the outcome. A young couple meet amidst the pushing crowds. And Grace Kelly watches Basehart in an office across the street as she’s finalizing a divorce. Fourteen Hours was Kelly’s film debut. It’s a very brief appearance and her subplot is actually the least interesting that takes place.

Debra-Paget-Jeffrey-Hunter-Fourteen-Hours-1951There is a solemness to Fourteen Hours. The character of Cosick is obviously very much in pain. The movie doesn’t paint him as a ‘crazy person’ at all, just a deeply troubled one. I sympathized with the guy and did get concerned for his well being, much the same way Dunnigan grows to be.

Both Basehart and Douglas are outstanding in their roles. Douglas has one of those old time great character actor faces. He’s got a real distinctive presence as soon as he rolls onto the scene. He’s a real likable everyman who feels he’s very out of his depth to deal with this situation. You want to root for both of these guys.

Then there’s a stellar supporting cast that includes Agnes Moorehead, Robert Keith, Barbara Bel Geddes, Frank Faylen, Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter, along with Ossie Davis showing up as one of the cabbies. It’s one of those movies where you might not know all the supporting actors names, but if you’re a fan of ‘old movies’ you’ll recognize them when they show up.

Fourteen Hours 1951 thriller New York City suicide jumperThe movie is a real success. It just goes to show what great writing, direction and acting can do. If you happen upon Fourteen Hours late one night don’t breeze by it.

A funny sidenote. Before watching Fourteen Hours I happened to watch 2012’s Man on a Ledge. I hadn’t planned on doing a ‘ledge themed double-feature’ it just kind of happened. I’m not exactly sure if Man on a Ledge is meant to be a remake of it. Really their similarities end with a guy standing on a ledge, but Fourteen Hours is a far superior film.  There’s just no contest!

Despite being a crime caper, people being blackmailed, bad guys and good guys in shoot outs, Sam Worthington running all around a building, nothing in Man on a Ledge comes close to creating the suspense that Basehart and Douglas achieve with their conversations. Douglas suggesting they go on a fishing trip together or simply offering Basehart a glass of water is much more tense than anything that 2012 movie can come up with.

Fourteen Hours 1951 Man on a Ledge 2012By the way, I’m not sure how Fourteen Hours has got categorized as a ‘film noir’. There’s no crime or double-crossing or femme fatales or any of the earmarks of what I consider a film noir. But I think Fox just gave it that description for marketing reasons to make its inclusion in their ‘Fox Film Noir’ dvds reasonable.

Eh, whatever. However you want to define it it’s a terrific movie.

Never mind with watching a trailer that might give something away, here’s the movie. I highly recommend you give it a chance!

See if it hooks you in within five minutes….


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