Retrospective: The Desperate Hours (1955)

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Heather Picker

Aug 19, 1999, 3:00:00 AM8/19/99
"The Desperate Hours"

Reviewed by Heather Picker

Directed by William Wyler. Written by Joseph Hayes. Starring Humphrey
Bogart, Fredric March, and Martha Scott, with Dewey Martin, Mary Murphy,
Richard Eyer, Gig Young, and Robert Middleton. 1955, 112 min., Not Rated.

Here we go again, Humphrey Bogart is holding folks hostage. Glenn Griffin,
his character in William Wyler's "The Desperate Hours" is quite different from
Duke Mantee of "The Petrified Forest," a role Bogart played on stage and in the
classic 1936 film adaptation with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. For one thing,
Glenn never seems very threatening, in spite of how he acts around the members
of the family whose home he and a couple other freshly escaped convicts invade.
For another, the characterization of Glenn is so thinly drawn that he has no
edge, Bogart in one of his last roles, has little to do.

The Hilliards are a typical American family.  Eleanor, the wife and
mother, stays at (their suburban) home, and father Dan is in a profession left
sketchy, though we do know he wears a nifty suit to work every day and seems to
know Glenn a little. But this isn't "Cape Fear." Nineteen year-old daughter
Cindy (Mary Murphy) is being courted by a persistant lawyer (Gig Young) and
young son Ralphy wants his dad to see him as a man, despite the fact that he's
in grade school. "The Desperate Hours" begins as just another weekday in the
Hilliard household. Once breakfast is over and those she looks after have
cleared out, Eleanor is in the house alone when Glenn knocks at the door. She
lets him in, and he, brother Hal (Dewey Martin) and prison pal Kobish (Robert
Middleton) plan on staying at the Hilliard house until they receive the cash
Glenn's sweetheart is supposed to send.

That evening, once Dan, Cindy, and Ralphy have returned home, the family
begins what will become a test of mental endurance, trying not be held hostage
by the fear that the three intruders evoke. However, none of the three are very
intimidating. Glenn keeps his temper in check because he doesn't want to do
something wrong and end up in more trouble than he's already in. Hal, the
youngest of the trio of criminals, predictably falls for Cindy, watches a few
days in her life and decides he has to make a break and try to start over.
Kobish is the token overweight doofus with a penchant for booze.

Despite the claustrophobia of being in a home with three dangerous
convicts who are supposedly willing to kill to keep their freedom, the palpable
air of tension never evolves into anything more. The screenplay, adapted by
Joseph Hayes from his own play, is generic. The romance between the Murphy and
Young character's is a relatively weak subplot, and the detectives trying to
track down the brothers Griffin and tagalong Kobish serve mostly as diversions.
By this time, if you're engrossed at all, you'll want the cops to stay out of

"The Desperate Hours" benefits from the sure direction of William Wyler
and solid acting. Fredric March, in the film's best performance, brings just
the right mix of sadness, anger, fear, and indignation at what is happening to
his family to his character, who embodies emotional core of the story. Twelve
years earlier, March had won the Best Actor Oscar for "The Best Years of Our
Lives," (directed by Wyler) and I'm mildly surprised that his work here wasn't
recognized in the form of a nomination. "The Desperate Hours" is not an
excellent film, but it will have you wondering how you'd act if your family
were in the position of the Hilliards.

© 1999 Heather Picker

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