THIS is another of those films with a self-explanatory title. It couldn’t possibly be a pirate movie or a biopic of Margaret Thatcher. And with a title like Man on a Ledge, we can be pretty sure it’s a thriller, though it’s worth remembering that in the early days of movies films about guys on ledges or dangling from high buildings were more likely to be the stuff of slapstick.
Harold Lloyd’s skyscraper comedies milked many a nervous laugh from our fear of heights, and in something called The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Jack Benny was one of six characters hanging on to each other’s trousers on top of a high building. Circus films usually included at least one funny sequence involving careless trapeze artists.
Just when the man on a ledge became a serious action figure is hard to pinpoint. Hitchcock was a master of cliff-hanging suspense (see Saboteur, Foreign Correspondent, North by Northwest), and I have unsettling memories of Fourteen Hours, the classic man-on-a-ledge drama from director Henry Hathaway, which I saw at an impressionable age. Mercifully, Fourteen Hours ran for only 92 minutes.
Man on a Ledge is a first feature by Asger Leth. We begin with a sober-looking guy walking into the lobby of New York’s Roosevelt Hotel and booking a room on an upper floor. After a hearty meal of lobster and champagne (and a generous tip for room service) he writes a note and steps on to the ledge outside his room. The Roosevelt is one of those slightly old-fashioned, not-so-tall buildings still to be found in parts of Manhattan, and makes an attractive location. But appearances can be deceptive. I remember thinking what a nice old-fashioned building Mia Farrow was moving into at the start of Rosemary’s Baby.
Our ledge-balancing hero turns out to be Nick Cassidy, a former New York cop. Nick has recently escaped from Sing Sing prison, where he has been serving a 25-year sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. And how do we know he didn’t commit it? First, because the story would lack any moral and dramatic foundation if he were guilty, and second, because Nick is played by our own Sam Worthington, who radiates such an air of stolid, no-nonsense decency that he couldn’t possibly be a bad guy. Having starred in at least one Terminator movie and played superheroes in Clash of the Titans and James Cameron’s Avatar, it’s quite likely that heights hold no terrors for him.
Man on a Ledge proves to a be a thoroughly workmanlike and agreeably ingenious thriller that operates at many levels — ground level, upper-storey level, and (at least in the scenes in the lift shaft) at various levels in between. And to give immediate credit where it’s due, many shots of Worth- ington were apparently filmed on the actual hotel ledge. A close reading of my press kit would suggest that Worthington, while admitting to a fear of heights, stepped on to the ledge for certain shots (though for most of the action a set was built on the hotel roof and another in a studio). One way or another, the effect is brilliantly realistic. Few films — not even Hitchcock’s Vertigo — have conveyed so well the tummy-wrenching, breath-catching sickness engendered by acrophobia.
Even for those untroubled by heights, it will come as a relief to discover that Man on a Ledge isn’t just about a man on a ledge. The screenplay (by Pablo F. Fenjves) gradually discloses new and more complex layers of meaning. It seems Nick has been the victim of a crooked property developer, David Englander (Ed Harris), a suave and plausible man about town who has framed Nick for a diamond robbery and collected a fortune in insurance on the missing gem.
The opening shots of Nick at the hotel are followed by a flashback to his prison escape, a finely orchestrated sequence culminating in a train crash that many may find more thrilling than all the business on the ledge. Thus a man-on-ledge drama becomes an escape thriller which becomes a heist movie which leads eventually to some mild-mannered romance. That this is accomplished without everything overbalancing and falling into the street is a tribute to the writer’s skill and the excellence of the performances.
Nick’s appearance on the ledge provokes the usual frenzied crowd scenes in the street. Excitable TV reporters (led by Kyra Sedgwick) are quickly on the scene, with bets being taken on whether Nick will jump. Cops plead with him to come inside. But the only police negotiator he will talk to is Lydia Spencer (Elizabeth Banks), who has been blamed for the earlier death of a jumper on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Like Worthington, Banks looks altogether too nice to be blamed for anything. And she has her own innocence to prove, too. Talking to Nick on the ledge, a bond soon grows between them. Then she notices he seems to be distracted by events in the building next door. She hears him talking to someone — but how, to whom, for what purpose?
It would be unfair to reveal more, except to say that Nick’s young brother Joey (Jamie Bell) is part of an elaborate plan to trap the unscrupulous Englander, establish Nick’s innocence and recover the missing diamond.
If the story requires Nick to be suspended for long periods above Manhattan, it also requires a large suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. Yes, it’s all rather far-fetched, but it works. Heist sequences are unfailingly suspenseful because, whatever the character or motives of the perpetrators, we desperately want to them to succeed.
There’s a moment when Joey takes a photo of an empty corridor on his mobile, prints it out on the spot and holds the photo in front of a CCTV camera to hide the real movement going on behind. With that sort of ingenuity, any ruse deserves to succeed.
In Man in a Ledge anything seems possible, even the slowly developing chemistry between Nick and Lydia. There’s strong support from Anthony Mackie as Nick’s trusted supporter within the NYPD and from Edward Burns as a sceptical rival.
For all its improbabilities, Man on a Ledge is a crafty and enjoyable entertainment.
Elizabeth Banks tries desperately to talk Sam Worthington down from the ledge