Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Desperate Hours is a lesser film by William Wyler, yet a rather successful thriller. The adapted play generates its share of tension, but the picture's thematic underpinnings are conventional, and its gangster character is a creaky throwback to the beginning of the genre. With the expert Wyler helming a great cast, it's still a fun show.
A calm morning in Middle America. Desperate criminal Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart), his brother Hal (Dewey Martin) and psycho Sam Kobish (Robert Middleton) have escaped from prison and need a quick hideout. They choose the house of Dan Hilliard (Fredric March), and terrorize his family -- wife Eleanor (Martha Scott), daughter Cindy (Mary Murphy) and son Ralphie (Richard Eyer) -- while awaiting help from Glenn's girlfriend. Tensions grow as the ordeal drags on. Cindy has trouble hiding the truth from her boyfriend Chuck Wright (Gig Young), Ralphie can't resist playing hero, and Griffin has a hard time controlling his comrades. And Dan Hilliard is wondering when it will be time to stop playing along with the tyrannical, bitter Griffin, and fight back.
The whole point of The Desperate Hours seems to be to reassure us that the All-American Family can stand up to anything that comes along. But the Hilliards are not assaulted by cannibal Ed Gein or kill-crazy Charles Starkweather, the up 'n' coming generation of meaningless, appalling killers. Instead they get a variation on Humphrey Bogart's old gangster from The Petrified Forest, an interesting but mostly symbolic fantasy of Dillinger-like criminality.
Joseph Hayes's story is simple and clean. The Hilliards are chosen for two days of terror because little Ralphie leaves his bicycle in the front yard, indicating a house with kids, a family less likely to do anything risky if invaded. So from the very beginning The Desperate Hours plays like an exaggerated paternal lesson. We almost expect frustrated paterfamilias Fredric March to turn on little Ralphie at the end and punish him for leaving the homestead vulnerable to murderous criminals.
In all fairness, we can't get too worked up when the invading crooks are much more bark than bite. The film would be unbearable if Glenn Griffin and his cohorts actually killed some of the Hilliards. The crazy Sam Kobish is an infantile moron, who scares mom by chasing Ralphie around the living room over a toy plane. He's no match for the spunky kid. who smashes his toy rather than surrender it. Ralphie is crestfallen when Dad doesn't challenge the gangsters to a duel. He screws up the family's big escape attempt by boldly disobeying instructions and sneaking out his bedroom window at the wrong time. Hey, boys will be boys, and Ralphie eventually shows he has The Right Stuff, guts-wise.
In contrast, Bogart's sad sack younger brother is played with defeatist gloom by Dewey Martin, the Howard Hawks find who was a fine bigger-than-life frontier hero in The Big Sky. Every guy ever snubbed by the Prom Queen knows how Hal feels when the gorgeous Cindy shrinks from him in disgust. These crooks already sense that they're unworthy losers. If this were a later exploitation picture, raping the womenfolk would probably become a main issue. Bogart has a menacing line or two in that direction and that's that. His girlfriend coming to the rescue is never shown, further isolating Bogie as a man alone, a throwback to an earlier era.
This show trumpets the unassailable strength of the American Family. Nothing the gangsters do can shake the Hilliards from their position of rock-strong nobility. Mom (the wonderful Martha Scott of Our Town) frets and wails but both she and daughter Cindy stand up like troupers to the louts they have to serve. Cindy puts her personal safety and love for her Mister-Right fiancé Gig Young in second place, and stands loyally behind the family. Even when emulating his heroes on TV, Ralphie is never less than valiant. It's up to poor tortured Dad to hold his family in line, while somehow sidestepping his captors' worst threats.
Humphrey Bogart, looking tired and drawn, is very good as Glenn Griffin, the desperate crook who hates straight-arrow family men and everything they stand for. Wyler's fluid direction masks the stage-play talkiness, but all Griffin really does is talk. The tension rises as he trusts March and daughter Mary Murphy (of The Wild One) to silence when they leave the house to keep up appearances. The family really suffers minimal abuse, as Griffin is too busy disciplining his own mutinous partners to get tough on March and company. The one real loser is the poor unmourned rubbish man.
Wyler and his scriptwriter do a nice dance when it comes time to deal with the police reaction. Film noir had already established the prevailing attitude to the cops -- one very good reason to avoid contacting them is that they'll more likely than not come in shooting. Even now, there are standoffs where hundreds of rounds are fired into houses, and the innocent bystanders are always hit by stray bullets chalked up to the criminal. In John Berry's He Ran All The Way, the dad refuses to call the cops because they always enter homes like firemen: "Chop, Chop, Chop."
Hilliard has no intention of going to the law, when an army of cops grabs him. Dependable slimy sheriff Ray Teal (Winchester '73, Ace in the Hole) recommends assaulting the house first and sorting out the bodies later, just what Hilliard feared. But humanistic detective Arthur Kennedy vetoes that suggestion, letting Hilliard go back into his house with an unloaded gun and no questions asked. I guess if it were Audie Murphy the cops were dealing with, this might be possible, but no law enforcement officer would ever let a civilian do any such thing. It's needed to bring the author's thesis to a clean showdown.
The whole point of the play appears to be to put big bad gangster Glenn Griffin up against God-fearing good father (or is that good-fearing Godfather?) Dan Hilliard, to see who really wears the pants. Naturally, without his advantages, Griffin collapses into a pathetic coward who begs for quarter. The score comes down 100% in favor of the All-American Team - tough guy Dad beats the gangster by force of character alone. Little Ralphie will never again question father's arbitrary orders, and Mom will be a little less critical as well. Date-bait Cindy's beau has proven that he has the stuff to be a Hilliard, and is finally welcomed into the fold. Nobody better mess with this bunch as they retreat to the privacy of the Hilliard castle. The house is like the family, untouched, even after the cops have unloaded on the bad guys like NRA day on Iwo Jima.
This slick production goes to the edge of the rather tame limit of roughness that classic Hollywood was going to accept in 1956. Wyler's direction is certainly dynamic (there's even his predictable dramatic focus on a staircase) but the film is rather retro when compared to the raw threats offered by new directors like Robert Aldrich and Don Siegel. Their attitude toward the nuclear family leaned toward real nukes and bodysnatching alienation. Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life is the schizoid opposite of The Desperate Hours' moral world. Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story tells a different tale of decent American families impacted by crime -- their daughters tortured to death, dead kids dumped on their front lawns.
The Desperate Hours is a 'safe & sane' thriller that reassures middle class America that all will be well if Ralphie cleans up the yard like he was told. Knowing a good thing when he sees it, Wyler brought little Eyer back for the next year's Friendly Persuasion, and made career amends to Robert Middleton by giving him a warm good-guy role in the same picture.
Paramount's DVD of The Desperate Hours is a solid rendering of this VistaVision thriller. The frugal back lot locations look fine in the detailed, rock-steady image. The enhanced widescreen framing restores compositional tension lost on full-frame television prints. There are no extras (never fear, Paramount assures us that they're unrated) but you can watch the film in French if you're from Quebec or want to pretend the film is happening in the Bourdeaux wine country. Savant is more than satisfied with the quality of this plain-wrap feature presentation.
Snoop stargazing note: the thoughtful schoolteacher given the bum's rush by Fredric March is none other than Beverly Garland, who probably left this hard-salary gig to fight Roger Corman's no-budget rubber monsters in Bronson Caverns a couple of miles away. Joe Flynn is in there too, but I never cared for McHale's Navy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Desperate Hours rates:
Movie: Very good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 11, 2003
Note from Avie Hern, 6.19.03:
Enjoyed the latest batch of reviews. As regards The Desperate Hours, Wyler's film had just come off a highly successful run on Broadway, and by the time it reached the screen all the twists and turns were widely disseminated, so that the public was less than overwhelmed. It was a rare miscalculation on the part of Wyler, who had been, of course, one of the leading translators of stage material to the screen (The Little Foxes, The Children's Hour, Dead End, Counselor at Law, Detective Story, etc.)
As for the casting of Bogart as Griffin, it hadn't been Wyler's original intention; Bogart contacted him, seeking the role. When Wyler pointed out that the play specified a much younger man (little older than the Dewey Martin character, actually), Bogart asked whether it was significant to the story's structure. Wyler, thinking about it, conceded that it wasn't, and went with Bogie. Frankly, I think it was a serendipitous circumstance, in that March's Hilliard and Bogart's Griffin, two products of the same generation, provide a one-gone-good, one-gone-bad dynamic that would've been lost with a younger man in the latter role.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson