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.
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.
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.
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.
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.