04 January 2010

The Desperate Hours (1955)

The Desperate Hours A Fine, Intense, Classic Thriller
By Kristin Battestella

The Desperate HoursNot Casablanca, nor The African Queen, not even The Big Sleep or To Have and Have Not. These classics are all well and fine and good-nay exceptional. But no. My favorite Humphrey Bogart gem is the much quieter William Wyler thriller The Desperate Hours.

After escaping from prison, Glenn Griffin (Bogart), his brother Hal (Dewey Martin, Daniel Boone) and thug Kobish (Robert Middleton) lay low and hideout in the last place Deputy Sheriff Bard (Arthur Kennedy) would look: the idyllic suburban home of Dan and Eleanor Hilliard (Fredric March, Martha Scott). Hilliard must keep his daughter Cindy (Mary Murphy) and son Ralphie (Richard Eyer) from harm, follow Griffin’s rules while going about his daily routine, and push away Cindy’s curious beau Chuck (Gig Young, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?). As the hours in the intense household drag on, both Griffin and Hilliard plot an end to the crisis.

Based on a real life incident from 1952, Joseph Hayes (Bon Voyage!) adapted his own novel and play treatment for the silver screen. Oscar winning Director William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver, Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur, in addition to eight more Best Director nominations) keeps the deeply focused story tight-everything in The Desperate Hours serves its purpose. Sometimes looks, words, and actions have double or triple meaning. The script, too, knows when to speak volumes and how to be quiet. Silent onscreen maneuvers, character twitches, and unnerving up close shots add emotion, attraction, and intensity. Today’s thrillers have the habit of telling too much or going overboard on the action and what we see. Wyler uses film noir lighting and the confines of set and story to let the audience inside with suspense and intelligence. Here’s proof that a fine piece of drama can be had just by putting a handful of people on the proverbial stage and letting the camera roll. Modern viewers might find the style stifling or the fifties colloquialisms too typical, but that nostalgic film noir magic is the point, isn’t it?

After all his leading man success and even a wonderful comedic turn in We’re No Angels- also released in 1955-Bogart returns to his villainous roots in The Desperate Hours. Perhaps he looks a little old for the part, yes; too old maybe for heavier action or stunts in this one of his final films. Knowing that Bogart was suffering from cancer and died two years later, we might think he’s not up to snuff, but that is simply not the case. We believe the wise talking, aged Bogie as an escaped criminal who’s had plenty of years to stew on his plans. Glenn Griffin knows how things click when they go clickety click, he can handle dames with the butt of his gun, and he has a personal grudge with the coppers. We don’t like Griffin one bit, he’s cruel and biting not just to his captors, but to his kid brother Hal. Nevertheless, we cannot underestimate him or Bogart. Griffin is indeed desperate in his escape, but Bogart is genius in his bad guy performance. Like Hilliard, the audience becomes desperate to see if and when Griffin falters. Surely Bogie’s can’t win this time!

Ah yes. If anyone might give Bogart a run for his clout, its two time Best Actor Oscar winner Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Best Years of Our Lives). Hilliard has the idyllic life; he’s the king of his castle until Griffin comes calling. He’s not stupid, for sure, but he has a family to protect. Griffin has nothing to loose, but Hilliard risks his everything on every move. We don’t doubt his strength and courage for his family, but every inaction walks the line of cowardice. You can’t let something like this blow over, can you? Who is more desperate-the man with nothing or the man with everything? The proverbial cat and mouse between Bogart and March is a delight. You needn’t fancy effects and action here- just point the camera and let these two masters go to work.

In addition to the stars, The Desperate Hours has a fine, talented support team that unfortunately doesn’t have room to fully spread their wings. Robert Middleton (Friendly Persuasion) is old school creepy as Kobish. We don’t see enough of him to get completely into his beastly ways; but at the same time, we have some very threatening imagery for 1955. Arthur Kennedy’s (Peyton Place, A Summer Place) Deputy Bard is also typical of the fifties Dragnet style cop, but there are more layers of heart, thought, and revenge than your average wooden copper. Mother Martha Scott (Our Town, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur) and daughter Mary Murphy (The Wild One) don’t have much to do beyond the usual screams and pretty dame defiance, but both ladies are charming nonetheless and keep us speculating on what rapacious things might happen in a situation like this. Only Richard Eyer (Stagecoach West, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) is annoying as the too pesky and obvious kid brother Ralphie. How do you end up with a college aged daughter and an elementary school son, anyway?

Sharp-eyed viewers will also notice that the exterior of the Hilliard home is the Leave it to Beaver house. It’s a fine touch of irony that this mature and complex shattering of the sanctity of home takes place in our quintessential Cleaver household. The layout and locations of the residence work wonderfully. It’s a large house, yet the interior set is small enough for restricted, confined, claustrophobic filming. The tight action, larger scale police maneuvering, fifties effects and visual tricks still look good, too.

There is a 1990 remake of The Desperate Hours starring Mickey Rourke, but I’ve never seen it. With a classic such as this out the gate, I don’t know why anyone would bother. Fortunately, the 1955 original is available on DVD. A bare bones release with no features beyond subtitles, but a treasured treat for your Bogart collection nonetheless. While Bogie aficionados already appreciate The Desperate Hours, classic film fans and suspense or thriller lovers should look at this film again. Fans of plays or film school folks might also enjoy an examination of stage to screen, talent, and technique study. One showing of The Desperate Hours, however, isn’t enough to appreciate everything- but you have to allow some time for things to stew and germ between viewings, too. Audiences young and old looking for an intelligent thriller should learn, live, and love The Desperate Hours.

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