Honestly, I love it for a whole lot of reasons but only one in particular that I often share with readers here: I see film noir as a black-and-white existence most often populated with broken people making broken choices, and I like to call these characters ‘monsters of a sort.’ That’s why I’ll occasionally cover noirs in this space – along with Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror features – when I get the inkling or opportunity, and that happens a lot when I can squeeze in the screenings.
Today’s exhibit: 1955’s The Desperate Hours was directed by William Wyler from a story crafted by Joseph Hayes and Jay Dratler. The home invasion thriller starred Humphrey Bogart, Fredric March, Arthur Kennedy, Martha Scott, and Dewey Martin in big roles. Based loosely on true events, the story dealt with what happened when a trio of escaped criminals descend upon a somewhat average American household, take the family hostage, and push all involved to their emotional limit. The Turner Classic Movies website states that although the film was largely received favorably by critics, it was no barnburner at the box office.
I have read that the script – adapted first from a novel and then a stage play – was rewritten specifically to make the lead villain Glenn Griffin older so that a marquee star like Bogart could fill the dastardly man’s shoes. Perhaps coming near the end of the actor’s professional career didn’t serve the picture as well as producers had initially hoped, but I’d still argue this is one of his best screen performances. He’s particularly good in the flick’s second half, growing increasingly despondent over the loss of thuggish control of his fellow escapees and their captives alike. So far as this reviewer is concerned, the man’s participation is reason enough to see this one … and see it you should.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“Three escaped convicts move in on and terrorize a suburban household.”
Frankly, the home invasion thriller isn’t exactly a contemporary phenomenon.
In fact, a quick search over at Google.com will show anyone interested that all the way back in 1909 revered Hollywood heavyweight D.W. Griffith crafted and released The Lonely Villa, a feature that kinda/sorta served to introduce this unique sub-genre of the Horror category. Granted, it may not have had significant traction with audiences until much later; and I think it’s safe to suggest that this type of flick came into its own in the 1950’s with topical entries like Count The Hours (1953), Dial M For Murder (1954), Suddenly (1954), and today’s nifty little classic The Desperate Hours (1955). Of this short list, I’ve seen three; and I’d argue that Hours is, arguably, the best creative stand-out. This is probably because I think the production really capitalizes on strong visuals – thanks to director William Wyler – and some modest character moments that elevate it into a class all its own.
Already established as a director with a reputation for staging excellent visuals, Wyler added a bit of something extra to Hours that probably goes by unnoticed by casual viewers: on the front lawn before the Hilliard home, young Ralphy’s abandoned bicycle lay in a bit of a heap near a tree. Symbolically, the bike could stand for any number of things – a means of transportation, a representation of childhood, etc. – and I think it’s safe to conclude that Wyler wanted it as such. As the film opens, we learn that, indeed, Ralphy is tired to being considered a child, so much so that he prefers to go by simply ‘Ralph’ as a means of demonstrating some maturity. It’s conceivable natural that the unattended bike was also something the child was leaving behind, making the object signify a transition between the old and the new in perhaps the same way all of the lives of the Hilliard family will be affected by what’s about to transpire onscreen.
Just as his youngest is evolving at his own pace, the elder Daniel Hilliard will come to grips with forced change late in the picture. In the final reel, he’s forced into the ultimate confrontation between himself and Griffin as both men are squared off opposite the other, guns in hand. Once Griffin falls to Hilliard’s trick and finds himself defenseless, the hardened criminal remarks that the elder finally “has it in him” to stand up for himself and his family. Hilliard necessarily argues that – if he finally has found the courage to take up arms in their defense – it’s because the actions of Griffin and his accomplices “had put it in him.”
Like son, like father … both men – young and old – are constantly not only evolving but also they’re recognizing the need to do so when and if their respective circumstances require it of them.
The Desperate Hours (1955) was produced by Paramount Pictures. DVD distribution (for this particular release) has been coordinated by the good folks at Arrow Films. As for the technical specifications? Though I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights-and-sounds to this newly restored 6K restoration (from the original VistaVision negative) were exceptional from start-to-finish. Rarely do films this aged look this damn great, and that’s wonderful. As for the special features? I was only provided a physical copy of the disc, so I can’t speak to any of the advertised packaging materials (or their efficacy), but the disc boasts a new audio commentary from film historian Daniel Kremer (a bit boring, honestly); some nice featurettes about the production and its legacy; some archival interviews; and the theatrical trailer. It’s a pretty solid collection for those who like this sort of content.
Highest recommendation possible.
Honestly, The Desperate Hours has always been one of my private favorite thrillers, but I’ve just never stopped and given it the love it deserves. Hopefully I’ve done this – to a small degree – in this review as I think it’s one of the essential viewing experiences of both film noir and the quintessential home invasion sub-genre. It boasts a (mostly) tight script – albeit I’m no big fan of Robert Middleton’s moments in the guise of the crooked Sam Kobish as they cheapen the film with predictability – and a fabulous cast who play with the big and small moments with great deftness. And anyone considering himself or herself a fan of Bogart would be a fool not to relish one of the actor’s last appearances in the spotlight as he especially makes the film a sight to behold.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Films provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray screening copy of The Desperate Hours (1955) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.