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.
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