Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Desperate Hours (1955)

The Desperate Hours was one of Humphrey Bogart’s last films and his performance is an intriguing throwback to The Petrified Forest which had given his first major break back in 1936. The movie itself is caught uneasily between two different eras of film-making but it succeeds because it has the right cast and a great director in William Wyler.

Bogart is one of three criminals on the run after a prison beak-out. They need to find somewhere to hide out and Bogart picks the Hilliard house because there’s a child’s bicycle on the front lawn. People with kids are easier to threaten because they have more to lose and are less likely to take risks like going to the cops.

Glenn Griffin (Bogart), his kid brother Hal (Dewey Martin) and a psychopathic halfwit named Sam Kobish (Robert Middleton) are the three criminals who take the Hilliard family hostage. Daniel Hilliard (Fredric March), his wife Ellie (Martha Scott), teenage daughter Cindy (Mary Murphy) and ten-year-old Ralphie (Richard Eyer) are terrified but beneath their terror they have a resilience that puzzles and enrages the hoodlums.

Glenn is waiting for his girlfriend to arrive with the money they need to make their escape but it turns out to be a very long wait. The state of siege lasts for 48 hours and the pressure starts to tell on both the criminals and their hostages. The question is whether the criminals or the family will break first.

Story-wise there’s nothing startlingly original here but the movie is remarkably well-crafted.

This is a home invasion movie but to a large extent it’s about a whole way of life under threat. In that respect it has some similarities to Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat which dealt with  crime as a mortal threat to ordinary family life.

The tension is enhanced by the fact that the Hilliards have to go about their daily lives, dealing with people coming to the house and even having to go to work and then come home again without being able to reveal the drama taking place in the house. Whenever one of them leaves the house they cannot go to the police because the other family members are still being held hostage. The scenes of ordinary daily life taking place in the street serve to emphasise the tension.

This is a movie about a clash between two different styles of masculinity. Glenn Griffin is the obvious tough guy, the kind of tough guy who relies on violence or the threat of violence. Daniel Hilliard seems like the meek and mild type but he proves to have a psychological toughness that gives him a surprising edge over Griffin. Griffin’s original calculation that a guy with kids would prove easy to overawe is turned on its head. Hilliard’s determination to save his family is a source of strength, not weakness. While the three criminals turn on each other the Hilliard family sticks together.

The three jail-birds in this film seem slightly out of place in the mid-50s. New and much nastier kinds of villains were starting to populate the crime movies of this era and these three by comparison seem somewhat tame. Bogart is playing the kind of role he had played so many times earlier in his career. He is a 1940s-style bad guy. Fortunately he has the acting chops to pull it off and he gives the character the kind of complexity that makes him more than a cardboard bad guy. At times we actually feel sorry for him because we sense that beneath the tough guy exterior there is a great deal of weakness. As the story progresses he seems less formidable while Daniel Hilliard seems to become progressively more formidable. And Griffin also seems aware that the balance of power is gradually shifting against him. This complexity and emotional weakness in Glenn Griffin is the movie’s main claim to being film noir.

Fredric March matches Bogart’s complexity with some complexity of his own. He knows that one mistake could cost him his life and his family but he is determined not to make that mistake. At the end he is prepared to gamble but it’s a carefully thought-out gamble, a gamble from a position of psychological strength rather than weakness.

The supporting players are uniformly good, with Arthur Kennedy being very effective as the cautious sheriff’s deputy Jesse Bard who adopts what the British police of a later era would call a softly, softly approach. All the other cops want to go in with guns blazing but Bard and FBI agent Carson (Whit Bissell) favour a watch-and-wait approach. This provides another instance of the tension between differing styles of masculinity. Bard and Carson are more interested in winning than in demonstrating their tough guy credentials.

William Wyler is at the top of his game, keeping the tensions finely balanced and throwing in a few nice directorial touches like the opening tracking shot.

Paramount’s DVD release is barebones but the transfer is exquisite. At the very low price being asked this one represents excellent value.

The Desperate Hours is a fine piece of film-making with Bogart and March playing off each other superbly. Highly recommended.

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