The movie’s primary plot deals with the man on the ledge, played by Richard Basehart (La Strada, Moby Dick) and the policeman, played by Paul Douglas, an actor who usually portrayed the Everyman. The policeman is just a traffic cop who happened to be outside the hotel when the man on the ledge was first noticed. He rushed up and started to talk with the man. A little bit of a connection was getting established, but then a police bureaucrat shows up and takes over. (Think Die Hard with Officer Al Powell getting superseded.) The bureaucrat immediately alienates the man on the ledge and almost makes him jump. He backs off to wait for experts from headquarters to come and deal with the man.
In the meantime the traffic cop has been sent back down to the streets to try to help with the crowd that has been gathering. As he walks through the crowd we meet other people whose stories will make up smaller plots within the film. There is a group of cab drivers who are losing fares since their cabs are stuck in the traffic. One of them instigates the others into starting a pool on when the man will jump. One thing that is notable is that for a 1951 film, the actors playing the drivers are relatively diverse. Among them is a young Ossie Davis.
We also meet a woman in a cab who is trying to get to an important meeting. The cop advises her that she had best walk if she is going to make it. This woman is played by Grace Kelly. We find out in a few later scenes that the meeting is in a lawyer’s office to go over the details of her divorce. The office is in a building that looks towards the man on the ledge.
I never thought I would write this, but Grace Kelly turns out to be only the second most beautiful woman in the movie. The final people on the street that are shown are a young man and woman who have a “meet cute” while getting caught in the crowd. The woman is played by Debra Paget (The Ten Commandments) and the man is played by Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers). When we first see Paget her eyes are cast upwards towards the man on the ledge. She is incredibly beautiful. Her character expresses concern for the man on the ledge and she is overheard by Hunter’s character. He appreciates the fact that while most people are irritated by all the commotion being caused, she is not. She is the first he has heard express concern. As the movie progresses we see a connection developing between the two.
Also involved at various points are members of the media. Even in 1951 you can tell the filmmakers were fed up with how much the media were like vultures, trying to get everything they can on the man, and even showing them hoping he will jump in time for them to get their stories into the evening editions of their newspapers.
Meanwhile, once the staff psychologists get there the man on the ledge refuses to talk with anyone other than the traffic cop who was first there. They retrieve the cop and he tries to get the man to come back into the room. Various tactics are tried – can they rig something to snag the man? Can the cop grab him? Can the cop get the man to let them know what’s wrong so they can do something about it?
The man is identified and his parents are located. When his mother, played by Agnes Moorehead of Bewitched fame, shows up she is a real piece of work. You start to see how this guy could have gotten messed up. When his father arrives, you learn more pieces. Finally, a young Barbara Bel Geddes shows up as his former fiancée.
Basehart does a good job of showing the inner turmoil in the man on the ledge. His anguished replies of “I can’t tell you!” when asked what the problem is really hit home. Without spoiling whether the man is saved or not, I can tell you that he never actually comes out and says why he is on the ledge. I took it as that he might not know himself; he just knows that he maybe doesn’t want to go on living.
Based on when the movie was made, the fact that his character was a “mama’s boy”, the fact that he broke off his engagement, and the fact that the movie never comes out and says what is wrong, I am sure that somebody somewhere has tried to make the case that what has driven the man to the edge of suicide is that he is gay. If you want to interpret things that way, go ahead. I won’t argue against it, but I don’t necessarily agree with it, either.
One thing I especially want to give kudos to in this film is the cinematography. Even though it was shot in 1951, the camera is not just set up like it is a stage play. They actually put a camera out on the ledge looking down at the crowd that shows you the view from the perspective of the man on the ledge. They also have a camera looking up from only about 20 feet below him and the cop. These serve to constantly remind you that there is a large drop below the man and that he is standing on a ledge that is not very wide.
If you are thinking about watching this only to see Grace Kelly’s debut, she has three or four scenes for a total of maybe ten minutes of screen time. She gets one scene to emote, but that is it. She’s just a smaller character in the larger story.
The varying stories give you a picture of the situation that is well rounded. It’s not just the story of the man on the ledge, but his impact on a divorcing woman, a group of cabbies, and he may have made this the most important day in the life of the young man and woman who meet in the crowd. The result is a good movie and I recommend that you give it a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]