Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Movie: Fourteen Hours (1951)

Noir expert Eddie Muller writes about this movie in the introduction to his book DARK CITY. But in many respects the film isn’t noir so much as a grim fable of urban life.

It’s based on an actual incident, but similar tales unfold all the time. A young man (Richard Basehart) in deep despair climbs out on the ledge of a building. As he debates whether he’ll take the plunge, New York coalesces around him. Cabbies takes bets on what time he’ll hit the ground. One couple meets, another reconciles. And aging beat cop Paul Douglas becomes the kid’s only lifeline.

Basehart is extraordinary as the city’s oddly polite victim, and Martin Gabel shines as a police psychiatrist. But the movie is truly about Douglas’ character, a working-class flatfoot all too familiar with disappointment who’s suddenly asked to explain why life is worth living. The reasons he gives are good ones: the first sip of beer on a hot day, an afternoon out fishing, cracking a tired old joke so you can see your wife smile.

The film originally had a much darker ending that was altered when the daughter of Fox exec Spyros Skouras committed suicide by leaping off Bellevue Hospital on the day of the film’s premiere. The edited version still packs a wallop.

Watching the movie, I thought of a phrase that seemed the exclusive property of sportswriters until I heard it in conversation recently. A man I was talking to in a bar in Los Angeles was telling me about a documentary he’d just seen about seminal punk band The New York Dolls – and specifically about Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane, who overcame tremendous odds to join the Dolls for a reunion concert. “You really should see it,” my newfound friend told me. “It’s full of wonderful music and great human drama.”

Human drama. No ticking clocks, no cartoon villains. Just the drama of being human. That’s what FOURTEEN HOURS has in spades.

Book: Watch Your Back!, by Donald E. Westlake (2005)

Today’s comedy lesson: Verbs can be funny! Example:

“Holy shit!,” Stan realized.