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 convict 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), and they are held hostage in their own home. Griffin connects with his out-of-town girlfriend and instructs her to deliver a large sum of money to the Hilliard home.

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 themselves, while innocent visitors to the house also find themselves in 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 that they will not dare alert the authorities as long as Ellie and Ralphie are under threat at home. It's a tenuous argument, and while this unusual freedom of movement opens up the film to a diversity of locations and an expansion of the tension to cover Daniel's workplace and draw 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 in Glenn Griffin and Daniel Hilliard representing the two sides of the societal tracks clashing in the suburbs. 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 the Griffin and the boorish Simon Kobish. Cindy's presence as an attractive woman caught in the clutches of desperate men adds a further element of menace, with Griffin's ability to control Kobish's most primal urges always in question.

Despite a strong police dragnet that eventually forms to corner the escaped convicts, the script (by Hayes) is always aiming for a man to man final confrontation between Griffin and Hilliard, the hardened criminal and the family man tangling to settle the outcome of an uncomfortable confinement. Hilliard realizes that he is in the best position to help his family, and also that what he lacks in aggression he will need to make up for in brains.

Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March are both excellent, two veterans enjoying the thrill of sparring against each other. Bogart's screen star power meant that 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 character in his penultimate film, as he passed away the following year after just one more release.

Bogart's final gangster is tired of the system that has always worked to throw him behind bars, and wants his measure of revenge. In the house of Daniel Hilliard, Glenn Griffin unleashes his fury on all that suburban normalcy represents.

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