"A man comes in through the door, you got nothing. He comes in through the window, you got a situation."
So spoke Billy Wilder, a man who knew a few things about dramatic construction. But what happens when the man goes out the window?
Fourteen Hours (1951), directed by Henry Hathaway, from a screenplay by John Paxton and a story by Joel Sayre, places Richard Basehart on a window ledge of the ---- Hotel in New York, threatening to jump, early one morning on St. Patrick's Day. Having laid out their situation, the filmmakers now have a ticking engine of suspense, a clearly defined milieu, and a set of urgently active questions.
Is this film forgotten enough? Sometimes you just see something really good and you have to tell the world. In any case, the movie isn't exactly renowned, and its cast bulges with lively, underrated talents who could do with more consideration. Apart from Basehart, a fascinating and unconventional leading man, who has some of Johnny Depp's restless desire to be a character player, we have the stalwart beacon of lumpen humanity that is Paul Douglas, as the traffic cop landed with the job of talking this undecided jumper in from the ledge. These two natural but contrasting varieties of ham are great value, and kept barely under control by the steely-eyed Hathaway, a tough-guy director unlikely to put up with any nonsense from anybody. Indeed, Hathaway's lack of sentimentality is very helpful here—it's possible the director would be just as happy to see Basehart wind up as street-pizza, so even though such a conclusion is unlikely in a film from this era, a genuine air of risk pervades the movie.
In support, we get the iconic Agnes Moorehead, the screen's most dependable hysteric, as the wannabe suicide's domineering mother, and watery-eyed Robert Keith as his weak-willed dad, the pair of them an archetypal set-up to a dollar-book Freud analysis by headshrinker Martin Gabel. Also on hand, the nervous bumble of Howard Da Silva's police chief, nearly tipping his scenes into farce, which is rather unexpected and strangely welcome.
Meanwhile, as a city block grinds to a halt due to the gathering crowds, the central situation sends narrative lines spreading out through the streets like fractures. A young Grace Kelly is inspired not to divorce her husband. Cab drivers bet on when the chump is going to jump. And fresh, over-earnest Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget play young rubberneckers in love, brought together by fate in the shadow of the suicidal man.
DEEP FOCUS, LONG WAY DOWN
Obviously, the central problem of the film, how to get Basehart back through that window, is a good source of dramatic tension, providing us with a limited locale to add cohesion, and equally obviously the film's title helpfully adds a time limit to the spacial one. So we have unity of time, space and action, but what of theme?
Here the script is sheepish. Basehart's problem is that he can't tell anyone his problem. Gabel's psychiatrist sees the root of it in childhood, a tormented upbringing, oedipal issues. (Paul Douglas's silent reaction to all this talk of perverted mother-love is priceless.) Basehart was engaged to lovely Barbara Bel Geddes, but broke it off. Is he a homosexual, or is he afraid that he may be homosexual? Is Gabel going to whisk him off and pump him full of nauseating apomorphine while showing him slides of bodybuilders? We don't know.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
This unresolved core problem actually adds interest. John Paxton's other writing credits show him inclined to take a simple view of social problems, and a soap-opera view of character, although he does it with considerable taste and skill: Crossfire, The Wild One, The Cobweb, On the Beach. Whether for censorship reasons or due to an inadequate grasp of the psychiatric theory he's dealing with, he leaves an unknowable gap in the centre of this movie. In narrative terms, everything is resolved by having Basehart saved from self-destruction, and having Gabel assure us that everything will now be alright, but these nagging questions remain. And I think that's good, just as I think it's good that Gabel, a gifted yet somehow untrustworthy actor, with his paranoid gerbil face, does not successfully reassure us with his bed-side, or ledge-side, manner.
Get the man off the window ledge. Give us a happy ending. But don't reassure us too much. We're grown-ups.
Thanks to Guy Budziak.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.