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Fourteen Hours

Fourteen Hours(1951)

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teaser Fourteen Hours (1951)

"I'm going out of the window," John William Warde is alleged to have said to his sister just before noon on a scorching, overcast day in July, 1938... and that's exactly what he did. Stepping out of a window on the seventeenth floor of the Hotel Gotham in midtown Manhattan, Warde planted his feet on a narrow strip of ledge and remained there for the next fourteen hours. As crowds massed on the street below and psychiatrists, firemen, cops and priests flooded into the hotel to offer help, the delusional 26 year-old agreed to speak to one man: traffic cop Charles Glasco, who passed himself off as a bellboy. Taking no food and drinking only water, "the tireless lunatic" (as the Times dubbed him) became a one day cause celbr, the name on everyone's lips. On the street below, hawkers rented opera glasses to permit rubberneckers a better view of the man on the ledge while bets were placed as to whether or not Warde would jump. At 10:30 pm, the disturbed young man bummed a Lucky Strike from Glasco, smoked it, then let the cigarette fall and then stepped off his perch into oblivion. Falling one hundred and seventy feet, Warde died upon impact with West Fifty Fifth Street. Widely covered at the time, John William Warde's sad tale was the subject of a 1949 New Yorker piece by Joel Sayre. Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights to "The Man on the Ledge" and entrusted direction of the feature film adaptation entitled Fourteen Hours (1951) to docu-drama pioneer Henry Hathaway.

By 1950, Hathaway had been enjoying considerable success with a run of noir thrillers The House on 92nd Street (1945), Kiss of Death (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948) which made extensive use of actual inner city locations to add to their scenarios a layer of gritty verisimilitude. For Fourteen Hours, Hathaway brought a small army of 175 actors and technicians to film on the streets of New York. The screenplay by John Paxton (Crossfire [1947]) fictionalized the events of July 26, 1938, renaming the Hotel Gotham the Rodney Hotel. (He also altered the names of John William Warde and Charles Glasco to Robert Cosick and Charlie Dunnigan). Cast as The Rodney was the Guaranty Trust Company, located at 128 Broadway in downtown Manhattan. Permission to film had been granted as a professional courtesy, as Guaranty Trust handled accounts for Fox. The original plan had been to film over the long Memorial Day weekend in 1950 but unexpected delays stretched the location shooting out to two weeks.

Ursine character actor Paul Douglas (who had turned down the opportunity to reprise his Broadway success with Born Yesterday [1950] in Columbia's big screen adaptation) was tagged to play the affable family man Dunnigan, while the role of the troubled Robert Cosick was handed to Hollywood newcomer Richard Basehart (the angry loner of Alfred Werker's He Walked by Night [1948]). Douglas and Basehart's home lives gave their respective characters unintended shadings: Douglas had just a month earlier married Jan Sterling, while Basehart's wife of ten years, costume designer Stephanie Klein, was diagnosed with a brain tumor during filming and died following brain surgery that July.

Its use of a seven-point narrative to flesh out Fourteen Hours makes the film a precursor of sorts to Pulp Fiction (1994) and Crash (2004). To play the peripheral characters drawn into the drama of the man on the ledge, Fox brought in a number of promising Hollywood newcomers including Jeffrey Hunter, Debra Paget and Grace Kelly (in her film debut, and beating out Anne Bancroft for the part) along with seasoned veterans Agnes Moorehead, Robert Keith, Howard Da Silva and Jeff Corey. Stage actress Barbara Bel Geddes was picked to play Cosick's love interest; interestingly, she would not appear in another feature film until Alfred Hitchcock's acrophobic Vertigo (1958) seven years later.

Among the three hundred New York bit players and extras called in for crowd scenes were jobbing actors Ossie Davis, Harvey Lembeck, Joyce Van Patten, The Magnificent Seven's (1960) Brad Dexter, John Cassavetes and Robert Keith's 20-year-old son Brian. Hired for ten days work at $55 a day was nonprofessional performer Richard Lacovara, whose job was to double Richard Basehart in long shots on the ledge (which Fox carpenters enlarged to minimize the risk of falling). A porter in the stereotype room of The Daily Mirror, Lacovara had answered a newspaper ad asking for construction workers unafraid of heights and lied about being a steelworker. Protected by a canvas life belt hidden under his costume that was connected to a lifeline, Lacovara filmed from 8am until 5pm, and then went to his regular newspaper job from 7pm to 1am. Despite being doubled, Richard Basehart still had to endure over three hundred hours of standing with almost absolute stillness over the course of the fifty day shoot, a requirement complicated by a sprained ankle and legs ravaged by a case of poison oak that the actor contracted while cutting weeds at his Coldwater Canyon home.

Two endings were shot for Fourteen Hours: one with Cosick falling to his death just as firemen raised a cargo net to catch him (as happened in the failed rescue attempt in 1938) and one in which he is coaxed back to safety. Henry Hathaway preferred the truthful, downbeat ending but the very day the finished film was previewed the daughter of 20th Century Fox president Spyros Skouras jumped to her death. While the understandably grieving Skouras wanted the film shelved, the studio ultimately released Fourteen Hours six months late with the hopeful happy ending. The subject was tackled again in December of 1955 for an episode of the Joseph Cotten-hosted 20th Century Fox Hour, with Cameron Mitchell playing Robert Cosick, William Gargan cast as the inexplicably renamed Patrolman Bragan and the title changed to The Man on the Ledge.

Although the publicity push for Fourteen Hours was strong (Paul Douglas promoted the project on the cover of Life magazine in March of 1951) and critical comments generally favorable (apart from griping about the boy-meets-girl subplot involving Hunter and Paget), Fourteen Hours lapsed into obscurity relatively quickly and was rarely seen or discussed as forgotten as John William Warde himself. When the film was shown in revival in 2003, the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles borrowed the only existing print. Happily, this rare title was included in 20th Century Fox's "Fox Film Noir" DVD series in 2006 and subsequent TV broadcasts will allow it to be appreciated and discussed by a new generation.

Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: John Paxton; Joel Sayre (story)
Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Art Direction: Leland Fuller, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Paul Douglas (police officer, Charlie Dunnigan), Richard Basehart (Robert Cosick), Barbara Bel Geddes (Virginia Foster), Debra Paget (Ruth), Agnes Moorehead (Christine Hill Cosick), Robert Keith (Paul E. Cosick), Howard da Silva (Deputy Police Chief Moskar), Jeffrey Hunter (Danny Klempner), Martin Gabel (Dr. Strauss), Grace Kelly (Mrs. Louise Ann Fuller), Frank Faylen (Walter, room service waiter), Jeff Corey (Police Sgt. Farley), James Millican (Police Sgt. Boyle), Donald Randolph (Dr. Benson)

by Richard Harland Smith

"That Was New York: The Man on the Ledge," by Joel Sayre, The New Yorker, April 16, 1949
"High Above Lower Broadway: Unit from Hollywood Shoots Picture About a Suicidal Maniac on a Building Ledge in Financial District," by Thomas M. Pryor, New York Times
"A Long Time to Fall," Crimes and Punishment: A Pictorial Encyclopedia of Aberrant Behavior, Volume 10, The Symphonette Press 1974
Henry Hathaway: A Director's Guild of American Oral History by Rudy Behlmer
Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film by Marshall Fine
"A Princess's Progress: Grace Kelly's Screen Debut," by Danny Peary, AMC Movie Magazine

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