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The Desperate Hours (1955)
Dan Hilliard is a comfortable upper-middle-class executive with a wife and two children and a pleasant suburban home. His world seems quite in order, quite predictable. But then convicted murderer Glenn Griffin escapes from prison with his younger brother Hal and a ruthless thug named Kobish.
The three escapees take over the Hilliard home, using it as an unsuspected resting place while a police manhunt scours the city for them. Glenn Griffin finds Dan Hilliard to be no pushover, but rather a determined fighter out to protect his home and family from this criminal invasion. But is a middle-aged businessman a match for three wiley killers?
Humphrey Bogart ... Glenn Griffin
Fredric March ... Dan C. Hilliard
Arthur Kennedy ... Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard
Martha Scott ... Eleanor 'Ellie' Hilliard
Dewey Martin ... Hal Griffin
Gig Young ... Chuck Wright
Mary Murphy ... Cindy Hilliard
Richard Eyer ... Ralphie Hilliard
Robert Middleton ... Sam Kobish
Alan Reed ... Detective
Bert Freed ... Tom Winston (deputy with Bard)
Ray Collins ... Sheriff Masters (Bard's absent superior)
Whit Bissell ... FBI Agent Carson
Ray Teal ... State Police Lt. Fredericks
"The Desperate Hours" is a towering achievement in suspense films… It was cast to perfection, written and directed by a meticulous, serious artist…
Its basic situation – of a family trapped in their home for 36 hours by an utterly ruthless gang – was not new… What was new and immeasurably compelling was the fact that these were not simply "good guys" and "bad guys," but all were real, breathing, vulnerable human beings… They all knew how to hate and to be afraid, and to want to kill and want to love… There were no supermen either… They got hungry, and irritable, and tired, and they showed hesitation and uncertainty as well as pure courage…
It began as an ordinary day for the Hilliard family in their pleasant home in Indianapolis… Eleanor (Martha Scott) gave breakfast to her family and saw them off – husband Dan (Fredric March) to his job in a store, pretty daughter Cindy (Mary Murphy) to her office desk, and ten-year-o1d Ralphie (Richard Eyer) to school…
Turning on the radio, she paid little attention to the news item, about the escape of three desperate criminals from jail: ruthless Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart), his younger brother Hal (Dewey Martin) and the brutish Sam Kobish (Robert Middleton).
These three needed a safe hideout while they awaited the arrival of some expected money and they chose the Hilliard home… They were installed and completely in command when Dan and the two youngsters came home – and there the family was trapped, under the gangsters' order to "make it normal" and with no doubt of the consequences if they did not obey…
As the major tensions mounted – the money did not arrive and the police closed in – there was a fascinating interplay of lesser conflicts:
- The father urgently trying to repress his rage to save his family – until his final gamble...
- The schoolboy unable to believe that the guns and bullets are real – and unable to understand why his adored father is apparently submitting without a fight...
- The wife fighting hysteria in an attempt to live normally in such circumstances...
-The spitfire daughter and her boyfriend (Gig Young), whose impatient courtship almost causes disaster...
- The youngest criminal coming to see in the quiet normality of the lives he has invaded a message of the waste of his own...
- The deputy sheriff (Arthur Kennedy) leading the hunt and knowing he has been marked out for murder...
- The gang leader, played by Humphrey Bogart with an intelligence to match his deadly ruthlessness, with a shrewd instinct for discovering others' weaknesses… and torn when his own younger brother quits, finding himself as much a prisoner in the house as his hostages… Once before, in "The Petrified Forest," Bogart gave us such a man, but that performance was relatively restrained compared to this beast at bay…
"The Desperate Hours" keeps you on the edge of your seat; it more than passes the test as a thriller and it most certainly has not mellowed over time. The script is fine, intelligently examining how the respectably middle class but somewhat complacent father (Frederic March) draws strength and courage from the love of his wife and kids in handling the ordeal. Though each family member is formulating their own strategy for how best to resolve the crisis (their brains are always going "clickity-clickity-click" as Bogart mockingly keeps reminding them) they recognize March as the father and as such the captain of the ship. They look to him for leadership and he responds. It's telling that when the young son disobediently puts his ill-conceived plan into action, it undermines the father's nearly successful tactic. Though he had earlier suspected his dad of being cowardly for not taking a more aggressive stance, from this point on he begins to appreciate all the variables he must take into account and looks up to him once more. The idealized, but by no means wildly unrealistic domestic situation reflects the mood of the time. Why on earth would it possibly reflect cynically 90's attitudes and sensibilities, as some reviewers seem to desire?
There are casting decisions pertaining to age differences which raise an eyebrow, but do not seriously detract from William Wyler's (as masterful and dependable a director as Hollywood has ever cranked out) otherwise polished production. At 42 of course, Gig Young seems a tad old for the family's 19 year old daughter (beautiful Mary Murphy) but he's still youthful enough looking and he puts an interesting spin on what is usually the thankless role of the boyfriend who stumbles into things. One of the beauties of B&W photography is that it can always be used to make actors look as many as 5-15 years younger than they are. This comes into play with Bogart's character as well, as he's asked to be the older brother of 32 year old Dewey Martin, and it's something that I didn't have too hard a time buying. It's difficult to believe this was one of his last films, as he seems quite vigorous and robust in the part.
Tense, exciting, well-acted and directed; this is indisputably far superior to Michael Cimino's bloody and botched 1990 Mickey Rourke "star" vehicle remake.
Bogie had done films like this one before: The Petrified Forest (1936), High Sierra (1941), Key Largo (1948) and We're No Angels (1955) – all with Bogie as a gangster or victim of a gangster, in a desperate setting (although the last one is a comedic spoof). Desperate Hours, however, is different – this time out, Bogie (as Glen Griffin) has a whole suburban family as hostage as he tries to complete his run for freedom from the law. Is this the first such home invasion type movie? Perhaps Suddenly (1954)?
The story is simply superb. Every good narrative succeeds because of certain literary aspects: a believable story line, down-to-earth dialog that supports it, a good measure of irony at appropriate turning points, just the right amount of coincidence that can intrude on anybody's daily experience, a dogged police officer who just won't give up in the search for what he believes, and a family – an ordinary family – that finds within itself the courage, imagination, and strength to persevere in the face of the real threat of death.
I saw this film long ago when just a lad, so I didn't recall much of the story at all. But, being a Bogie fan, I looked forward to seeing it again when I got a hold of a DVD recently. I don't recall what movies were in the running for the Oscars that year, but I think this should have been a contender (apparently, it wasn't).
The cast was well chosen. Bogie, of course, was "made" for this part, having done so many like it in the past – and that's not a side-swipe at typecasting; Robert Middleton almost steals the movie with his portrayal of the psychopathic Kobish -- a chilling portrayal; Dewey Martin as Bogie's brother, Hal, provides a sense of decency that the other two lack, the only jarring note for me: why should he? He's on the run, and drops all pretense of humanity when he decides to cut and run by himself. And, we know what happens to anybody who cuts and runs, right? Frederic March as Dan Hilliard ably shows what can happen to your principles and behavior when lives are at stake: most of life's niceties go out the window as he tries to save his family. Understandable, given the desperate situation. Martha Scott as his wife and Mary Murphy as his daughter (Cindy) are suitably frightened most of the time, but they also summon the courage to oppose the bad guys when possible. The guy who isn't used so much is Arthur Kennedy as deputy sheriff Bard, but his role is pivotal in bringing the story to a satisfactory ending. Pity, because Kennedy was as fine an actor as Bogie or March. Gig Young, as Cindy's suitor, rounds out the main cast – he playing the puzzled hopeful who just won't go away when Cindy pleads with him to "stay away". It's just as well that he didn't...
The setting in small town America is just right, the picture perfect home of the Hilliards standing for the American dream that is about to threatened and even destroyed. Which gives rise to one of the best lines in cinema history, spoken by March near the end: "Get out – get out of my house!" he nearly screams at Bogie, thus cementing forever in film the idea of a man's home as his castle. Bogie visibly wilts before the stern and righteous wrath of March – but not only because of that does Bogie give it all up. You'll have to see the film to understand why.
Most of the action is within the confines of the Hilliard house (having been a stage play first, that makes sense) and the cinematography takes full advantage of all those nooks and crannies to enthrall the viewer and keep the suspense running. I liked particularly the reasonably long take of the camera behind the bad guys while they watch the old trash collector do his work and who seems to miss the presence of their stolen car in the garage. It's a priceless piece of work as the escapees faces keep looking at each other and then at the old man – and the viewer stays on edge, all the time, wondering: will he react?
The final showdown is simply a tour de force. It's fast and furious, ranging all through the ground floor, up the stairs and into the bedrooms, and then back again, as the protagonists fight it out for supremacy; I was reminded of Dustin Hoffman's running fight with the bad guys in Straw Dogs (1971). In the hands of an inept director, it would have been farcical but Wyler turns on the suspense and the irony as March overcomes his adversary – Bogie – in one of the coolest ways imaginable. No, I won't tell you, because that would spoil it for you.
As the credits rolled by at the end, my immediate thought was that this type of story is so believable, it could happen to me, or you...
* Fredric March's part was intended for Spencer Tracy, a good friend of Humphrey Bogart's, but neither Tracy nor Bogart was willing to concede top billing to the other.
* The exterior of the house used in the film is the same set used as the Cleaver home in the TV series "Leave It to Beaver" (1957).
* Humphrey Bogart's last tough-guy role.
* The first black and white movie in VistaVision.
* The Character of Glenn Griffin was made older so Humphrey Bogart could play the role. The stage version starred Karl Malden and a young Paul Newman in the Bogart role
* This movie and the play on which it was based, are loosely based on the experience of the Hill family in 1952. An article published by Life magazine about the play is the subject of the Supreme Court case Time Inc. v. Hill, in which the family sued the magazine for stating that play depicted what really happened.