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Desperate Hours, The
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.
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 aren't 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 some of the Hilliards were actually killed by Glenn Griffin and his cohorts. The crazy Sam Kobish is an infantile moron, good to scare mom by chasing junior around the living room over a toy plane. He's no match for the spunky kid. Little Ralphie smashes his toy rather than surrender it, is crestfallen when Dad doesn't challenge the gangsters to a duel, and boldly screws up the family's big escape attempt by 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.
Likewise, Bogart's sadsack 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 in disgust. These crooks already sense that they're unworthy losers. If this were a later production, raping the womenfolk would probably become a main exploitative issue. Bogart has a mencing 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, and nothing the Gangsters do shakes the Hilliards from a superior, 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 fiancee Gig Young in second place, and stands loyally behind the family; and even when acting like 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, but 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 he's suddenly snagged by an army of cops. 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 not only vetoes that, but lets Hilliard go back into his house with an unloaded gun, and no questions asked. I guess if it was 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 Godfearing 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 just by force of character. Little Ralphie will never again question father's arbitrary orders, and Mom will be a little less critical as well. As for date-bait Cindy, well, her beau's proven he's got the stuff to be a Hilliard, and he's 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 very dynamic (there's even his predictable dramatic focus on a staircase) but the film is rather retro when compared to the raw threats being bandied about by new directors like Robert Aldrich and Don Siegel. Their attitude toward the nuclear family leaned toward real nukes and bodysnatching alientation. Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life is the schizoid opposite of The Desperate Hours' moral world, and Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story told 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 for middle class Americans, and reassures them that all will be well if Ralphie cleans up the yard like he was told. Knowing a good thing when he saw 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 backlot 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 schoolteacher who comes to see if Ralphie's sickness is serious, and gets insulted out the door 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