Monday, May 28, 2012

Fourteen Hours (1951)

"Are you sure Harold Lloyd started this way?"
Fourteen Hours is a 1951 20th Century Fox film available on DVD under the brand "Fox Film Noir" but it isn't really that.  There's no crime plot, hard boiled hero or femme fatale in this movie but it does share a one thing with noir, a reliance on psychological explanation. Besides that it's an entertaining movie full of familiar faces.

The plot is simple. A young man walks out onto the ledge of a New York City hotel and threatens to jump.  Most of the rest of the film's 92 minutes is concerned with the police trying to figure out why he's doing this and get him down from there.  The story is very well directed by Henry Hathaway who keeps everything going at a brisk pace and it's a bonanza of fine acting from the principals and well known actors at the beginning of their careers in bit parts. 

Richard Basehart in convincing as the troubled young man on the ledge and Paul Douglas, then a top Fox star, is very good as the simple, compassionate cop who gets the task of of trying to talk him off.  Then there's Barbara Bel Geddes as the young man's fiancee and the great Agnes Moorehead acting up a storm as his self-absorbed mother. The other main support comes from the likes of Howard Da Silva as a police chief, Martin Gabel as a psychiatrist and Robert Keith as Basehart's father. 

Below that the cast is insanely full of now-familiar names who would go on to bigger things after this.  Frank Faylen is the waiter who first sees Basehart on the ledge. Jack Benny's TV nemesis, Frank Nelson, is a hotel guest, Jeff Corey is a policeman, Joyce Van Patten, Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget play onlookers, Harvey Lembeck and Ossie Davis are cab drivers and above all, there's the movie debut of Grace Kelly as a woman on her way to divorce her husband.  According to IMDB, Leif Erickson, John Randolph, Brad Dexter, Janice Rule and John Cassavettes are also somewhere in the crowds of rubberneckers, police and reporters shown but I didn't notice any of them.

The psychological element comes near the end of the film when Gabel delivers a detailed diagnosis of Basehart basically saying that all his troubles stem from confused feelings about his parents and resulting self-loathing.  It's the kind of pat explanation that would be spoofed a few years later in Psycho but in this context it sounds plausible.  There's also a sense for the callousness of the watching crowds that is reminiscent of Ace In The Hole but the overall feel  of the film is nowhere nearly as cynical. Peripheral characters may act as though the idea of a man jumping to his death is just a big show but the main folks involved, especially Douglas' cop, are shown as good, caring people.  That's probably one of the reasons Fourteen Hours has gotten lost in the shuffle over the years, not dark enough. Nevertheless it still holds up as tight, engrossing entertainment.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jeanne Lee / Ran Blake - "The Newest Sound Around"

Ran Blake is one of my favorite pianists, a man whose playing is a singluar blend of dissonance, blues and film noir elements. Over a fifty-year career he's mostly played in solo and small group settings but some of his greatest work has come when paired with female singers. He's worked with Chris Connor, Christine Correa and Dominique Eade over the years but his most remarkable duo work came on his very first recording, The Newest Sound Around, where he was paired with his fellow Bard College classmate, Jeanne Lee, who was also making her first recording.

From the first notes of the opening track "Laura" it's obvious this is something special. The dark sensuality of Lee's voice and the icy, clipped notes of Blake's piano create a memserizing effect, attractive and unsettling at the same time. Their version of "Blue Monk" may be the best example of their partnership. Blake goes into the tune with a rattling, alienating strangeness but when Lee brings her velvetly voice in, the oddity gets a human dimension and turns into a downbeat melancholy. Much of the rest of the session, like "Where Flamingos Fly" and "When Sunny Gets Blue" comes off equally ominous and delicate but there are other facets in the work. Blake's solo piece, "Church On Russell Street" is charging gospel piano with a strong Gershwin-like melody, Lee's acapella versions of the traditional "Motherless Child" and "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands" are pure spun beauty and there's even a little frivolity on a Fran Landesman song "Season In The Sun" when George Duvivier joins in on bass and the solemn duo momentarily becomes a frisky jazz trio.

This record orignally came out on RCA in 1962 and has been revived a couple of times in the CD era. I first bought it when the format first came around and RCA reissued a whole slew of their jazz rarities on disc. Like a lot of older jazz sessions that have fallen into public domain lately, it's just been reissued, this time on a Spanish label, Solar, and with a nice bonus, some 1963 Blake and Lee live tracks from a concert in Germany that have never been released before.  These sound a little rough but still can be clearly heard. The highlights of this section are a gospel waltz version of Cannonball Adderly's "Sermonette",  a dramatic but lively Blake solo piece called "The Outcast" I'd never heard of before and an arrangement of the song "Round About" with a lilting carousel-like theme that foreshadows Blake's later masterwork "The Short Life Of Barbara Monk".

Altogehter The Newest Sound Around is a singular classic of voice and piano blending in a way no one has quite been able to match in the fifty years since its release.  It's a masterpiece that deserves to be far better known than it is and it's good that it's finally available again.