The Desperate Hours (1955)

Film Title: The Desperate HoursThe-Desperate-Hours-Poster-1

Year: 1955

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Film Noir

Starring:

  • Humphrey Bogart
  • Fredric March
  • Arthur Kennedy
  • Martha Scott
  • Dewey Martin
  • Gig Young

Review

The world lost Humphrey Bogart in 1957 to cancer. In the time we had him, the characters he created left such a deep impression, that he has been immortalized many times over. His brilliant portrayal as Glenn Griffin in 1955’s “The Desperate Hours” was no exception. Bogie would only make one more film after this, that being 1956’s “The Harder They Fall”. It’s evident from his first appearance on screen that his health was no detriment to his ability. The film was one of the very first to incorporate VistaVision (widescreen projection), a method that Paramount introduced in 1954, and was the first black and white film to use the technology. The only five films to precede it were all shot in color. Those were White Christmas (1954), 3 Ring Circus (1954), Richard III (1955), The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Artists and Models (1955).

Humphrey Bogart stars as Glenn Griffin, an escaped convict who, with his brother Hal (Dewey Martin) and third wheel Sam Kobish (Robert Middleton), terrorizes a respectable family with a home invasion. Griffin needs money, and a better car to replace the broken down heap they drove in with. That money is to come from one of his female associates who is strategically waiting elsewhere for Griffin’s call. There’s only one problem…the three cons need a place to plant themselves until the money arrives. Police APBs are all throughout the state, so they’ll have to melt somewhere into normal society. They spot the perfect location, the home of the Hilliard family. The Hilliards are the stereotypical law-abiding citizens living an ordinary life. The man of the house is Dan C. Hilliard (played by Fredric March). He has a dependable job with a wife and two children. His wife Ellie (Martha Scott) is a June Cleaver-like housewife who keeps the house clean and the meals ready. The two children, Cindy (Mary Murphy) and Ralphie (Richard Eyer), are the picturesque visions of youth. Cindy is the older of the two. Ralphie is only in elementary school but wishes to be treated as a “grown up”, even shaking his father’s hand instead of hugging him. While the husband and kids are away, Ellie hears a knock at the front door and opens it to find Griffin asking for directions. Before she can answer, he forces his way in and the experience begins. He orders her around the house, barking commands and demanding that she place a call to the female counterpart awaiting word to meet Griffin with the money. A short time later, the rest of the family returns home and into the unfolding drama. Dan Hilliard is visibly confused and appears to be somewhat of a pushover. Griffin has the upper hand, but convinces the Hilliards that he and his partners will be leaving them by midnight. He only needs his money to arrive. That’s all. Despite this narrow timeline, Dan Hilliard wants these men out of his house right away. He makes various ill-fated attempts at getting them out, all of which do nothing but test Griffin’s patience and insult him. Ralphie wants to be the hero. He is too young to fully understand the dangerous consequences of upsetting a trio of convicts. Cindy’s boyfriend Chuck (Gig Young) is a pushy young man who begins to suspect something is amiss in the Hilliard household. He continues to involve himself, even after Cindy forcefully tells him that “it’s over” between them. As the hours roll by, tensions run high in the house. The three cons argue with each other over the way things should be run. Kobish is a child-like idiot who runs around the house playing with Ralphie’s toys, while Griffith’s brother Hal starts to rethink his position in the plan. The Hilliards are caught in the middle of these varying opinions. The clock moves slower than usual. Midnight comes but the gang is still present. Their time table has not kept its promise. Do these three men ever plan on leaving?

The Desperate Hours placed Humphrey Bogart in a situation he’s seen before, albeit from a different side. In 1948’s Key Largo, Bogart played a man trapped with others in a Florida hotel under invasion by Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). This time, Bogie was the one to invade. Visibly much older than his well-documented image, Bogart showed slight signs of tiring. His words still cut like a sharp knife. The personalities in this film seemed like they were purposely scattered around to balance the canvas. Glenn Griffin is the strict enforcer whose focus remains constant, while Kobish is more like a mischievous seven year old who is looking for kicks. Griffin’s younger brother Hal is somewhere in between. He seems to enjoy the power trip of being part of the action, but cannot fully commit himself to the criminal life. He drops subtle comments about wanting a life comparable to the Hilliards’, and directs blame at Griffin for shaping him into the man he’s become. Dan Hilliard’s personality changes as well. He enters as a vulnerable man and quickly transforms into a daredevil to protect his family. The constant clash between him and Griffin is a steel cage match between right and wrong. Once again, shades of Key Largo (Bogart’s clash with Robinson). The film’s title suggests the desperation of the Hilliard family. In actuality, it also applies to the convicts. The infamous money did not arrive when it was supposed to, thus causing them to recalculate the chain of events which was to follow. Without this in place, they are stuck with no plan B. In the dual desperation, the upper hand fizzles out and the opposing sides are left with nothing but a with a fight for their survival.

On Video

The Desperate Hours was released on DVD in 2003 by Paramount. There are no bonus features on the disc, but the video and audio are stellar. As mentioned, the VistaVision technology was incorporated. This allowed more of the landscape to be shown than had been seen in prior films. One can only imagine the boldness of this film on the big screen. If you are on the fence about renting, watching or buying this film, then allow this beautiful presentation to push you over the edge!

Conclusion

This is a daring film noir that grabs the viewer by the throat. The role of Dan Hilliard was originally intended for Spencer Tracy, who was actually a close friend of Bogart’s. The part was given to Fredric March because neither Bogart nor Tracy would relinquish top billing to the other. Another interesting fact lies in the exterior of the Hilliard home. As mentioned, Ellie Hilliard was a June Cleaver-like housewife. Fittingly, the exterior of the house was the same exterior used for the Cleaver household in the “Leave It To Beaver” television show. All the way around, this film is full of qualities. It was Bogie’s last tough guy role, and one that provided that persona of his with the swan song it deserved. It showed the determination of both good and bad and it capitalized on the realism of the situation. This is not some far-fetched, overblown extravaganza. This is a conundrum that any one of us could find ourselves in at any moment. This is the message behind The Desperate Hours.

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