Thursday 1 January 2015

Movie Review: The Desperate Hours (1955)

A well-executed hostage drama, The Desperate Hours features one of Humphrey Bogart's final performances as he plays a hardened, desperate fugitive trying to make one last stand.

Dangerous convicts Glenn Griffin (Bogart), his brother Hal (Dewey Martin), and the lumbering Simon Kobish (Robert Middleton) escape from prison and randomly choose the suburban Indianapolis home of businessman Daniel Hilliard (Fredric March) to seek refuge. The family consists of Daniel's wife Ellie (Martha Scott), their teenaged daughter Cindy (Mary Murphy) and young Ralphie (Richard Eyer), now held hostage in their own home. Griffin connects with his out-of-town girlfriend with instructions to deliver a large sum of money to the Hilliard address.

Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard (Arthur Kennedy) organizes a search for the escapees, but progress is slow. In the meantime the wait for the money takes longer than expected and the home occupation drags beyond one day. Griffin allows Daniel to go to work and Cindy to go out on a date with her fiancĂ© Chuck (Gig Young) to maintain a semblance of normalcy in the neighbourhood. But the strain of the hostage ordeal starts to take a toll, tensions mount between Griffin and Daniel and among the convicts, while innocent visitors to the house stumble into mortal danger.

An adaptation of a Joseph Hayes novel (inspired by real events) and a subsequent Broadway stage production which starred Paul Newman, The Desperate Hours deviates from the typical hostage drama by affording the victims some flexibility of movement. Griffin allows Daniel and Cindy to repeatedly come and go from the house unsupervised, on the pretext they will not dare alert the authorities as long as Ellie and Ralphie are under threat at home. It's a tenuous argument. While the freedom of movement increases location diversity, expands the tension into Daniel's workplace and draws the fiancé Chuck into the drama, it also undermines Griffin's competency.

Otherwise director William Wyler crafts a tidy and tense thriller, capitalizing on a clash of two strong central characters. The career criminal with his cohorts and the well-to-do businessman with his family are suddenly forced to deal with each other, and it's a well-staged duel spiced by the brewing unease between Griffin and the boorish Simon Kobish. Cindy's presence as an attractive young woman caught in the clutches of desperate men adds a further element of menace, with Griffin's ability to control Kobish's primal urges always in question.

A strong police dragnet eventually corners the escaped convicts, but the script (by Hayes) is always aiming for a man to man final confrontation, the hardened criminal and the family man destined to determine the outcome. Hilliard realizes he is in the best position to help his family, deploying strategy to compensate for his lack of natural aggression.

Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March are both excellent, two veterans enjoying the thrill of sparring. Bogart's star power meant he landed the role ahead of Newman, and Glenn Griffin evolved into an older character to suit the actor. Bogart referred to Griffin as "Duke Mantee grown up" in reference to his career-making role in 1936's The Petrified Forest. Fittingly, The Desperate Hours proved to be Bogart's final gangster, as he passed away the following year after just one more release.

Bogart's last outlaw wants a measure of revenge against a system designed to defeat him. Surrounded by the domesticity he never experienced, Glenn Griffin unleashes his fury on hostile suburban normalcy.

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