The Desperate Hours (1955) William Wyler

May Contain Spoilers!

What I have always liked about this film is its sense of unrelenting fear and randomness that it could happen to anyone. That is what still makes this film work well. Wyler is an archetypal style Hollywood filmmaker in the best sense of the word. He never lets the camera intrude on the story.
Three convicts escape from prison and take cover in the home of the Hilliard’s, a “typical” American family of four living in a middle class neighborhood. Holding the family hostage the escaped cons are waiting for the girlfriend of Glenn Griffin (Bogart) to deliver a money package to help with their escape.


This was Bogart’s final role as a gangster and his next to last film before succumbing to cancer two years after the film was made. Bogart once said, his role here was Duke Mantee, referring to his star making part in “The Petrified Forest”, all grown up. It is a good point, in both films the Bogart character and his cronies are holding a group of innocent hostages. Griffin is a sneering, arrogant menace easily willing to lie, cheat and kill to get what he wants just like Mantee. Bogart growls with a viciousness in a perfect career ending role for the man who created some of the most memorable sleaze ball gangsters in cinema history.


As Dan Hilliard the head of the invaded household Fredric March is steadfast, determined to protect his family, capable of battling Griffin in a psychological battle to save his home. He not only has to stand up to the three convicts on the run but later toward the climatic end has to fend off the various law enforcement agencies including a local sheriff who wants to rush in with guns blazing taking down anyone in their path mostly because it would not be good for his career if these criminals got away.
The remainder of the cast does a capable job with Arthur Kennedy as Deputy Sheriff, Martha Scott as Ellie Hilliard, the wife, Dewey Martin as Hal, the younger of the Griffin brothers and Robert Middleton as Kobish the bear like uncontrollable third convict. Mary Murphy as the older of the two Griffin kids is somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the cast. You may remember her as the nice local town girl in “The Wild One.” The one cast member I found wanting was Gig Young who plays Murphy’s much older lawyer boyfriend, older by about twenty years. Except for his performance in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” I have always found Young a rather bland actor. He does nothing to alter those feelings here.


The source story began as a bestselling novel in 1954 written by Joseph Hayes. The following year Hayes adapted the novel into a play that made its way to Broadway in 1955 (winning a Tony Award) with Paul Newman as Glenn Griffin and Karl Malden as the head of the Hilliard family. The story was inspired by several real life incidents. The film was actually completed before the play even opened on Broadway, subsequently it was held back from release until the play unexpectedly closed after Karl Malden left the production after 212 performances.
The change in casting from a young and still relative newcomer like Paul Newman to the iconic Bogart caused an obvious age difference between the convict Glen Griffin and his young brother Hal portrayed by Dewey Martin. Hayes willingly changed the script to accommodate the age difference in the actors. That said it does in no way distract from the story.
Wyler originally wanted Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda for the role of the father with Marlon Brando or James Dean in the role of Glenn Griffin. Later he sought Spencer Tracy as the family head but no agreement could be reached between Bogart and Tracy on who would receive top billing, subsequently Tracy bowed out. Also look for two well known “B” actors in small roles, science fiction favorite Beverly Garland and Joe Flynn of “McHale’s Navy” fame, who plays a motorist whose car is hijacked by Kobish.
As previously mentioned the novel is based on an actual incident which took place in Pennsylvania in 1952 when James and Elizabeth Hill were held hostage in their home by escaped federal convicts. In 1955 to coincide with the opening of the play, Life Magazine ran an article and photographs with the original stage stars (Newman and Malden) recreating some scenes in the actual home where the Hill’s lived (they had since moved away). The Hill’s sued the author, Paramount Pictures and Random House the publisher for $300,000 claiming invasion of privacy. The case was eventually dismissed.


As a director Wyler was well known for being relentless in pursuing the performances he wanted from his actors, many times by intimidation. There was one time he made Bogart work overtime (he and Bogart had an agreement that the actor would quit every day at five). By the time it got to six o’clock Bogart was pissed and put all his frustration and anger into the scene which was just what Wyler wanted. Another time, there was a simple scene where March was to kiss Martha Scott and leave for work. After more than thirty takes Scott asked Wyler what it was she was doing wrong. Wyler said, “It’s not you, I want March to look tired.” He was “acting” too much, his character was supposed to be worn out and upset. The scene took over a day to shoot but Wyler got his shot.


The film received mostly good reviews, one exception was from the ever odd Bosley Crowther of The New York Times who called it “a mere exercise in melodramatic hocus pocus.” Surprisingly the film did not do well at the box office. Part of the reason may have to do with the hold up in releasing the film until after the play closed. “The Desperate Hours” opened in October however, in July a film with a similar theme called “The Night Holds Terror” opened. It is possible the public did not want to see another family held hostage drama and opted out .
A 1990 remake by Michael Cimino with Mickey Roarke is best just left on the video shelf.

The Movie Projector presents the William Wyler blogathon running through June 29th. Click here for more great reviews.

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37 comments on “The Desperate Hours (1955) William Wyler

  1. John, once again you’ve made me truly eager to see a film I somehow missed. Your remarks about Wyler’s unorthodox methods of getting certain shots reminds me of what I read about his handling of Bette Davis in the 1940 film ‘The Letter,’ which, by the way, is a sterling example of how a director can use lighting, music, symbolism and editing to create heightened drama of the most memorable sort. It seems that Wyler and Davis had started an affair just before filming began and the first moments involved a rather complex dolly shot revealing the exterior or a rubber plantation. As the camera nears the porch a man stumbles down the steps and collapses as Bette Davis emerges firing a pistol at him until she repeatedly clicks the emptied barrel.

    Wyler made Davis repeat this shot nearly 70 times until she was ready to explode with frustration and anger and then, having established himself as boss in both filming and in their personal relationship, printed the first take.

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    • John Greco says:

      Great story David! From what I read Wyler was notorious for shooting over and over. Actually, you reminded me that I have not seen THE LETTER which I recorded off TCM quite a while ago and failed to have looked at.

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  2. Judy says:

    Great review, John – this is a film I love. On Wyler and his endless takes, I’ve read in a Bogart biography that in this film Wyler made Bogie go up and down the stairs of the house time and again for the same shot, until he was worn out. He asked someone else on the set what he should do, and they suggested he should ask Wyler to go up and down the stairs to show him how to do it. Wyler’s response to this was to say “It’s a wrap!” I’ve seen it suggested that in general he liked to get the actors tired through dozens of takes because he felt that then they became more natural, but it must have been quite wearing for them.

    I’ve seen a few films with the same basic plot as this one, of the gangster holed up in a house keeping people hostage – there’s an element of this idea in the early Wellman film ‘The Star Witness’, while others are Frank Sinatra in ‘Suddenly’ and John Garfield in ‘He Ran All the Way’, both of which I like, especially the Garfield film which must be one of his best – I keep meaning to write something about it!

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    • John Greco says:

      From what I have read Wyler was a tyrant on the set doing take after take. He seemed to thrive on it. Interesting enough I was reading about Gary Cooper who worked with Wyler on a film called THE WESTERNER and while Wylet’s reputation is considered hugh, Cooper his work lacked style and preferred other director he worked with like Von Sternberg, Hawks, Lubitch, Wilder and Fred Zinnemann.

      The hostage theme is fairly old hat. I like the three films you mention especially SUDDENLY. Thanks!!!

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  3. Sam Juliano says:

    I liked this particular film more on first viewing, and although I admire its considerable artistry (beautifully expanded on here) I think it’s a matter of the suspense and surprise only working once. But heck, this provisal applies to so many other films including Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER, which I am seeing tonight at the Film Forum as part of the 3D Festival. (I just minutes ago returned from Wildwood, John) That Hitchcock and so many others by the master of suspense would seem to hold the same specifications. Wyler’s perfectionism was better served on some of his best films, which DESPERATE HOURS is not, even with his sustained entertainment value. Still, others here like it, and I know of its reputation, so don’t mind me. It’s tough not being riveted by Bogart, and the premise here is mesmerizing. For a take on how such a mise en scene can become ugly and horrifying I refer you to Heneke’s FUNNY GAMES.

    Thanks again for a splendid assessment.

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam, I certainly understand where you are coming from. My memory of this film was that of greatness and while i still liked the film it has come down from the highest level.

      I did see Heneke’s U.S. version of FUNNY GAMES which is pretty brutal but I keep hearing and reading that the original version is much better. Thanks again, sir!

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  4. Excellent post on one of Wyler’s lesser-known films. I remember this one as really racketing up the tension between the family and the gangsters holding them hostage. And I think Bogie, with the gravity he had acquired by the time the film was made, was a better choice for the lead hoodlum than to have had a young Paul Newman. A lot of interesting info on Wyler’s work with his actors – it seems every cast Wyler ever worked with has a story to tell about what it was like!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks GOM,

      Newman was still an unknown to movie audiences in 1955 so I doubt he even had much of a chance to recreate his stage role. And Bogart had a somberness, as you alude to, to him that fit the role.

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  5. Sam Juliano says:

    Well John, this is the second time I’ve been treated to his marvelous essay, and I’d say after seeing the film another time in the interim since the original posting of this review, I am back to where I was on first viewing. It’s no masterpiece, but for what it is it’s impressive enough. I know as you do confirm here that Wyler took full control of this production and some of his antics were rather infamous. Geez, compare this to what we got from Haneke in FUNNY GAMES. Bogart’s men were working for Mother Theresa in comparison! Ha!

    Again, I compliment you for a superlative piece John, one that leaves no stone unturned.

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam,

      True Sam, Bogie and his crew are saints compared to the evil crew in FUNNY GAMES. Thanks again my friend for sharing your thoughts.

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  6. Judy says:

    I enjoyed this great review a lot second time around too, John – now I must see the movie again! I know Bogart got typecast as a gangster early in his career, but it is fascinating to see him playing this type of role again when he was almost at the end and had that lived-in, weary face – he puts so much bitterness into this character. On Gig Young, I haven’t seen that much of his work and agree he can be bland, but he is quite memorable as an infuriating charmer who steals James Cagney’s girlfriend in ‘Come Fill the Cup’, a movie about alcoholics which seems to have a cult following though it sadly isn’t available on DVD. Anyway, I appreciated the chance to read this again and love all the background info you have put together.

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    • John Greco says:

      Judy, I have not seen COME FILL MY CUP but I will say that Gig Young gave what I consider his best performance in THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?” A tremendously downbeat, fatalistic movie from 1969. Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by once again on this film.

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  7. FlickChick says:

    This is one Wyler film I haven’t seen (probably avoiding because it seems downbeat). Nevertheless, your review is sterling and I always love hearing how Wyler put his actors through their paces. Any director that can tone Frederic March down is aces in my book!

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    • John Greco says:

      “Any director that can tone Frederic March down is aces in my book!” LOL I like that. He ruled the set and rarely met his match. I hope you change your mind and check this one out. Thanks FlickChick!

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  8. “The Desperate Hours” is a dandy! That was my late father’s highest praise for a movie and “The Desperate Hours” was one of his favourites as he was a huge fan of both March and Bogart.

    I like the build-up of tension between March and, it seems, the rest of the entire world and really feel his anger when he gets to “Get out of my house!”

    I really enjoyed reading your look at a film that I think still works, and works well.

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    • John Greco says:

      The “Get of of my house” moment is cool. I think part of what makes it work so well is that everyone can relate to this kind of situation. Thanks Patricia!

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  9. Kevin Deany says:

    I just watched “The Desperate Hours” over the weekend, and agree with everything you said. Gig Young was woefully miscast, but the rest of the cast is pretty darn good. I do wish the story hadn’t left the house so much. I think the tension would have been greater if they had stayed in the house the whole time. But a darn good movie, and for Bogart’s last gangster role, it’s a good one.

    I love the shot of him eating bacon at breakfast the first morning the family’s captivity. For a couple of seconds there, he looks so content, you can almost read the thoughts going through his mind, how he could have had a life like this at one time….then he snaps out of it and goes back to making sardonic comments to the family. It’s the little touches like that separate the great from the routine.

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    • John Greco says:

      Kevin, I go along with your thoughts on staying in the house. I am sure it had to do with “opening up” the stagebound material for the movie. The play actually had two sets, the family home and the sheriff’s office.

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  10. R. D. Finch says:

    John, in a roundabout way this was the first Wyler film I was aware of. We read the play in my high school freshman English class and the text was illustrated with stills from the movie, so I knew the plot long before I ever saw Wyler’s film version. The casting possibilities you mention before the final cast was settled on certainly offer things to think about. In the end, I think the cast in the film is a fine one. I do agree with you and others, though, about Gig Young’s casting being questionable. (I haven’t seen him in “Come Fill the Cup,” the Cagney film that sounds so interesting but isn’t available on home video. I did think he was quite good in the Doris Day-Clark Gable movie “Teacher’s Pet”. And he was excellent in what is maybe my favorite “Twilight Zone” episode, “Walking Distance.”)

    What is so gripping about this movie is the unrelenting sense of menace in an All-American family, almost a cliche of normalcy, being invaded by such a group of thugs and psychos–the archetypal situation of order threatened by an intrusion of chaos. There’s one scene in the movie where an innocent person is coldly murdered that I found quite shocking for the time. I especially liked your comparison of Bogart’s character to his Duke Mantee in “Petrified Forest” and the basic situation of “The Desperate Hours” to the one in that film. I hadn’t thought of it, but the film is part of a small sub-genre of the gangster movie. (Judy, I did just see “He Ran All the Way” last week and agree how interesting it is, a more modest version of the same idea, although I did find the psychology of Shelley Winters’s attraction to Garfield not entirely thought-out or believable. Garfield, though, was marvelous as an out-and-out paranoid psycho. You can see why he was a major candidate to play Stanley Kowalski!)

    After I read Rachel’s post on “Friendly Persuasion” earlier this week, it occurred to me how often Wyler’s films dealt with family relationships and dynamics, especially after his marriage and the birth of his first children in the very early 1940s. Here we see his view of the family in peril from outside forces. Anyway, thank you for your post, John, and thank you for stepping in to cover this film and fill in what might have been a major gap in the Wyler blogathon.

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D.,

      Glad I could help in stepping. Interestingly you mentioned how Wyler “dealt with family relationships and dynamics, especially after his marriage and the birth of his first childre.” It seems his personal life influenced his choices, at least some time. It happened also when he made THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. He had just he returned to civilian life after the war and wanted to make a film about that topic. As I mentioned to Caftan Woman, the idea of thugs invading your house is something everyone can relate too.

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  11. Rachel says:

    This is one Wyler film I’ve always been meaning to check out but for some reason it keeps eluding me. This movie might make an interesting double bill with Cape Fear: the American family under siege. In regards to Gig Young, I don’t know if I find him bland, but his real-life biography is so grotesque that it makes it hard to watch him onscreen. But I love the idea of watching March and Bogart square off. Thanks for this review.

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    • John Greco says:

      Rachel, – “Cape Fear” and this would make a great twin bill. I always thought “The Petrified Forest” also would make a nice companion piece. Gig Young, for me has always been the second banana, the guy who is married to the star’s best friend. I have not read his biography but i did hear he had a wild life. Young, by the way, IMHO gave his best performance in 1969 in “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?”

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  12. I’ve always liked this film. I remember discovering it 20+ years ago as a random showing on TV and wondered why it wasn’t better known. It’s a real nail-biter with sensational performances from the leads. Great job!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks CFO – It’s a nail biter for sure with some wonderful performances and its great to se Bogart do one last gangster role. Thanks!

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  13. KimWilson says:

    I think it strange that Bogart chose to play such an unpleasant character this late in his career. Maybe he needed to recapture his menacing mobster self of old, but by this time it just didn’t seem real to me. Interesting story about Bogart an Tracy not being able to agree on who got top-billing. What idiotic behavior.

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    • John Greco says:

      Kim, Movie stars always have and always will fight over billing. That’s why you see a film where one actor’s name come first but it is lower on the screen than the name of the second actor. This kind of equals it out supposely.

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  14. The Lady Eve says:

    John, I knew nothing of the backstory on “The Desperate Hours” and was fascinated by the off-screen details you included here – to begin with, I had no idea Paul Newman had originated the Bogart role on stage. Wouldn’t THAT have been an interesting film?

    As I’ve read up up on Wyler lately for my own blogathon piece, I’ve become intrigued with the countless tales of “40-take (or 60-take or 90-take) Wyler” and his drive to get just exactly what he wanted from his cast. Your anecdote about the Fredric March/Martha Scott goodbye kiss is a classic. It may have been grueling approach but he certainly drew some magnificent performances from a long list of legendary actors/actresses.

    Thanks, John, for adding so much to my appreciation of “The Desperate Hours.”

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    • John Greco says:

      Eve, With Newman, the film would have been totally different, if for no other reason than the age difference. It would have been interesting to see Newman in this role full of youthful anger but I have no complaints with Bogie giving us one more gangster role.

      Wyler was certainly a perfectionist when it came to getting the take he wanted. He took no prisoners but your right he got some wonderful performances out of it all.

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  15. John says:

    I always liked Bogey playing somewhat a crazy guy alla The Caine Mutiny, The Petrified Forest, The Treasue Of Sierra Madre. Nobody does it better, cold and calculating with a touch of craziness.

    I wonder if you ever caught Bogart with EG Robinson in The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse? He plays a somewhat crazy gangster here. Enjoyable film.

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    • John Greco says:

      Hi John,

      I saw Dr. Clitterhouse some years ago and remember liking it without really going overboard about it. I do love the other Bogart films you mention, among many others. He is fantastic in Sierra Madre!

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      • John says:

        I think all the gangster spoofs that EG Robinson did were top notch. Larceny Inc., A Slight Case Of Murder and Brother Orchid are must sees.

        It is funny that Bogart played second fiddle to Robinson and Cagney on many occasions yet he is more well known today. I love Bogey but when Cagney or Robinson are in a movie, they just dominate it. They need more recognition today.

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      • John Greco says:

        John – All three of those films are fun stuff. Bogart did not become a top star until he made THE MALTESE FALCON in 1941. By that time Cagney and Eddie G. had been top stars for ten years. In the classic film circle all three of these guys are well appreciated and recognized for the great stars they were.

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  16. Rick29 says:

    John, after reading about March’s kiss scene, I honestly don’t know how actors put up with Wyler’s penchant for multiple takes. I suppose the results (numerous acting honors) justified the means. Your reviews are always first-rate and this one is no exception. Yes, as you so eloquently phrased it, DESPERATE HOURS projects a “sense of unrelenting fear and randomness.” I think March is particularly effective. I would have loved to have seen Newman as Griifin and I agree it would have been a totally different film.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Rick.Wyler was a task master that’s for sure. As you mention the results were always good. Bette Davis loved working with him. Of coourse, they had an intimate relationship going on the side that may have had something to do with it. March is good and I personally alway enjoy Bogart.

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  17. Enjoyed your post, John! Did Bosley Crowther ever like ANYTHING?!? Geez!

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    • John Greco says:

      I know what you mean. Many films that are considered excellent today, old Bos’ seemed to dislike. Thanks!

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  18. […] further reading, here is a link to John Greco’s great review at 24 Frames, featured in the recent William Wyler blogathon (John, I avoided rereading your review before […]

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