Directed by William Wyler
Written by Joseph Hayes and Jay Dratler (based on the play by Joseph Hayes)
Over the course of his 28 year film career—once a decade, give or take—Humphrey Bogart made the same movie three times, or, more aptly, he made a riff on the same basic idea for a movie, about a gang of crooks taking over a household, terrorizing its innocent inhabitants while they waited out the heat, promising that when their money/dames/partners arrived, and their business was concluded, they'd happily be on their way. Every time, they waited in vain. It always ended in violence, and the middle part of this unintended trilogy, 1948's Key Largo, is fundamentally different mostly because in that one Bogart's one of the victims. The one he started off with, meanwhile, was Warner Bros' 1936 adaptation of the play, The Petrified Forest. It was the film that confirmed Bogart's movie career after eight years in pictures (and six since initially coming to Hollywood, his early short films being produced in New York), and Warner Bros. would've preferred it (because in 1936, why wouldn't they?) if Edward G. Robinson had played the villainous role of Duke Mantee. Happily, Leslie Howard, who owned the rights, wouldn't budge unless Warners accepted the stage's own Mantee—Bogart—for their movie. It's funny, then (not hilarious, obviously, but kind of neat) that Robinson wound up playing the same function against a heroic Bogart at the peak of his stardom twelve years later in Key Largo. Seven years after that, Bogart came to Paramount to do the villain once again. He saw the parallel, and referred to his new role, Glenn Griffin—a name I rather prefer to the faintly ridiculous "Duke Mantee"—as The Petrified Forest's antagonist grown up, the hardened criminal even harder, eighteen years on.
Certainly, he was more weathered, and more tired. It was Bogart's next-to-last role before he passed in 1957. Given how advanced his cancer was when he finally bent to Lauren Bacall and went to the damn doctor, in 1955's The Desperate Hours we're almost certainly looking at a man already dying of it. You wouldn't necessarily need to know Bogart's biography to guess it, because whether it's physical or not, Glenn Griffin is absolutely dying, too—if from nothing else, then from a lifetime's worth of his only choices being bad ones, and the failed gambles he'd made to break the cycle. His scheme in The Desperate Hours is merely the last of them.
This is largely subtext, and even then, mostly as the dominating current of Bogart's outstanding performance. For all of that, and for all the melancholy inherent to the face of film noir throwing his weight and gruffness one last time behind a cagey criminal—for all that it is, in the in-between spaces provided by his director, William Wyler, one of Bogart's most humane performances—the 1955 film remains by just an enormous margin the most straightforward of the Petrified Forest/Key Largo/Desperate Hours triptych, which is one reason why it's the best. If nothing else, it's not half as laden down with philosophical rambling. (Don't get me wrong—the ur-Tarantinian talkiness and the plot that orbits around its protagonist's Byronic death drive is what makes The Petrified Forest one of the most enjoyably strange movies of the 1930s. On the other hand, with its overenunciation of revived Greatest Generation values, Key Largo is slightly too much on the nose.) All three are generally classed as noirs, which might only mean that, "if it has crime and Humphrey Bogart, and it's in black-and-white, it is noir." But Petrified Forest is at least about the sickness of modern times; Key Largo, as a kind of anti-noir, at least must tilt in noir's direction. The Desperate Hours, meanwhile, is just about as morally clearly-cut as movies get, which in 1955 was very clearly-cut indeed. Its first, second, and third aim is to be a thriller, and it's practically perfect at it. Oh, it expresses significant sociological and ideological themes in its play with post-war American life, and while it's certainly good at this, great even, what it's about is, well, exactly what it says in its title. It's about the grinding, increasingly-baroque battle of wits and wills between a representative of order and a representative of chaos, and how such a thing can be pure anxious pleasure to watch unfold when both of them are clever, determined, and, careful.
That does make it a bit of a departure for Wyler. He was no stranger to urban crime pictures (Dead End, also with Bogart, in '37; Detective Story in '51), but those films are born out of a reformer's impulse to illuminate some dingy corner of the city with the light of studio-movie social realism, and not so much the showman's desire to wind up his audience with gnarly thrills. Wyler seemed to prefer to operate in the former mode of Oscar-ready self-importance, and despite his occasional misstep (of which Detective Story is one), he was so frequently able to spin movie gold out of didactic and theatrical straw that I have to consider his filmography nothing less than a miracle. But it does mean that arriving upon The Desperate Hours is almost a shock. It's Wyler, quite unusually, getting downright elemental, but as Wyler giving in fully to the demands of genre and making bold pop entertainment was often where Wyler did his finest work—Ben-Hur, How to Steal a Million—it's also an extremely satisfying shock.
Things begin in The Desperate Hours with loud and threatening music accompanying a portentously doomy crane shot across what is, in every other respect, the most ordinary suburban block you could imagine. We arrive upon the Hilliard household—salaryman father Daniel (Fredric March), housewife mother Ellie (Martha Scott), adult daughter Cynthia (Mary Murphy), and snotnosed son Ralphy (Richard Eyer). Things don't begin for very long in The Desperate Hours, however, for—as KPLOT radio informs us, in a sign of just how efficient this thing is—Glenn Griffin has busted out of prison along with two accomplices, his much younger brother, Hal (Dewey Martin), and his titanic, sociopathic associate, Kobish (Robert Middleton). With a manhunt undertaken across five states, Glenn knows that he has to lay low, but to get the money his moll's been safekeeping for him during his years in prison, he has to get to Indianapolis for a rendezvous. He decides the last place his pursuers would ever expect to find him is in a nice home in a respectable neighborhood, and choose the Hilliards' specifically because Ralphy's left his bike outside, letting Glenn know that the Hilliards' house contains children. Glenn and his gang bust in on Ellie and take her hostage, collecting the rest of the family as they arrive home. Glenn expects no nonsense. He explains why he likes folks with kids: they take no chances. He brusquely assures Daniel and his family that he'll be out of their lives as soon as his girlfriend arrives around midnight, but she never does. An evening becomes an indefinitely extended stay, as Glenn scrambles to get his dough, and the Hilliards adjust their strategies to an increasingly dangerous situation. Meanwhile, Cindy's boyfriend Chuck (Gig Young) slowly recognizes something's off beyond his girlfriend's father's stereotypical disdain, and Glenn's old archnemesis, Det. Ward (Arthur Kennedy), ponders how an infamous convict, his brother, and a 260 pound man-mountain could have vanished off the face of the Earth.
Detailed yet simple—most of that synopsis merely involves naming and describing the characters who'll serve as the machine's moving parts—it's nonetheless capable of generating all sorts of elaborations, and that's where The Desperate Hours shines. Adapted by Joseph Hayes from his own play with a polish by Jay Dratler, it's remarkable how quickly they turn up the heat on their scenario. It's maybe twenty minutes into this 113 minute film before the screenplay has already outrun that synopsis; it's only forty minutes before it's already reached a boil, and it pretty much just keeps straight on boiling from then on, frothing right out of the pot, with barely a few minutes here and there to catch your breath. Even when it does slow down, it's almost always in service of sitting there in the unresolved tension, like the chiming of a gas pump when Dan's sent out on an errand while Glenn and his goons hold guns to his family's heads, or when Glenn sits in a dark room and tries to imagine some way for this to end well. For a home invasion thriller, it's even surprisingly full of sprawl, finding legitimate ways to spread the action out across Indianapolis—would-be witnesses, a new plan to get the money—without ever taking the unbearable stress off our cast.
That cast is the well-etched stuff of a great thriller, which is where a little significance starts to make itself felt, sneaking in through the back door, so to speak. Certainly the most obvious idea undergirding the film arises through the not-quite-satire Wyler and his screenwriters get up to with their perfect nuclear family. It's not satire, because it doesn't have that level of contempt or criticism, but it's unmistakably scoffing at the Hilliards' banal, sitcom-inflected dynamic. (This is an uncommonly—if appropriately—comedy-free Wyler film, so the Hilliards' first scenes represent just about the last jokes in the whole film. It's never humorless, mind you, but the laughs tend toward the sour.) Well, not for nothing, but the exteriors were filmed on what would later be the same lot as Leave It to Beaver; the Hilliards themselves live in the same house. It was built for the film—Beaver didn't premiere till 1957, you know—but that kind of distinction gets fuzzy 65 years down the road. In 2021, there's a certain subversive sleaze to The Desperate Hours, a movie made under the Hays Code where the Cleavers' predecessors get tormented, sexually menaced, and potentially annihilated by a pack of gangsters.
The same idea, albeit deepened considerably thanks to his performance, is felt in March's casting. Bogart had wanted his pal Spencer Tracy for Dan Hilliard; however, a friendly yet insoluble dispute arose over who'd get top billing, and Bogart was not remotely willing to give it up. I consider that a boon: Tracy would've been all wrong—too tough, too meaty, too Goddamn Spencer Tracy—but March is perfect casting for this, not least because it turns this Wyler joint into a sideways continuation of The Best Years of Our Lives. (The Hilliards don't keep booze in the house, a unique custom that pays off a little in plot terms but feels like Wyler making a conscious reference to March's encroaching alcoholism in Best Years.) March was old and looks it, and there's a softness about him that obscures how observant and ready Dan is, or becomes over the course of his ordeal. It is, to be snarky about it, Eisenhower era propaganda at its best, revealing the secret steel of the pampered suburban elite, who, after all, had won the war before they settled into their ordinary lives, but whose greatest terror now was that somebody from outside the neighborhood might move in.
It's a measured celebration of that kind of normativity, even so: Dan's a patient man who can suffer (and 40-Take Wyler makes March wear that suffering) some wounded pride on behalf of his family, and one throughline of the film is his son's education on the matter. As befits a Wyler film, its characters attempt to avoid violence even at the expense of badassery; it's not even just Dan, and The Desperate Hours is at least as much the parallel stories of two patriarchs, inexorably opposed and both beset with destabilizing elements, each trying to accommodate themselves to the other and get what it is they need without losing control. If Dan comes off better (or ends up better) than Glenn, it's because he's softer with his family, more in tune with them, and ready to exploit their own best ideas—the very best of which arrives courtesy of his daughter, good enough that it would've cut the plot short before the halfway point, if only Ralphy, poisoned with his own, independent notions about how to be man, hadn't fucked it up for everybody. (It is in fact a testament to Dan's restraint that he never straight-up belts Ralphy.) So whether because it was Bogart, or because Wyler had a humanistic streak, or simply because it was ideal for building this particular film, The Desperate Hours has nearly as much concern for Glenn as anyone, and you can see him trying to keep things from disintegrating, always beset with a dim, tragic awareness that he won't be able to, and always doubling-down on the long-shot instead. The same way that Dan embodies his own contradictions, Glenn embodies his; his growing awareness that he's failed his younger brother is as real as any of Dan's attachments to his family, and more poignant because even when he does choose to do the right thing by Hal, it still doesn't work.
And that's all fantastic, but ultimately that's flavor for the thriller that always remains The Desperate Hours' heart. Wyler does a lot with a little, with the tight constraints of his style (boasting his customary editor Robert Swink) proving tailor-made for his present purpose, with the precise blocking of his actors that had always worked to display the psychological relationships in his dramas turning out to be at least as useful to do the same thing for the power relationships in a film whose thrills depend upon the minute charting of its leads' competition for dominance. That's on top of the house, designed around deep focus photography and extremely low angles (say, does the action often revolve around shots up a big staircase with a big second floor landing? is it not a William Wyler movie?) that makes sure we can always make out those relationships, and our characters' understandings of those relationships, in the finest detail. It was Wyler's first widescreen effort (VistaVision, specifically), and I've always said Wyler, despite his reluctance, did widescreen extraordinarily well.
But it's maybe even smarter about the small stuff—a lot of that's script, but it gives the actors business, and Wyler doesn't waste time explaining why these details matter, instead showing us characters processing information and gauging their odds, and confidently trusting us to "get" it. The whole movie's made of these microscopic moments, but my favorite is when Dan writes a note to the police—telling them to stay the hell away—and he has to quickly search for a sheet of paper that doesn't have his company's letterhead. (It's not immune to nitpicks, obviously, but that's a joyless pastime: certainly no character in the film is a genius, but their mistakes are part of the fun. Frankly, logic would dictate simply slitting the Hilliards fucking throats as soon as each one walks in the door. Then the movie doesn't happen at all—are you happy now?) Glenn compliments Dan every other scene on his smarts—half-sarcastically, and with certain bile, but by the end you can see he really means it—and when he says that brain of Dan's is always clicking, clicking away, maybe that long sit with the chime isn't just to work on our nerves but to literalize Dan thinking his way out of his predicament, one step at a time.
It's likewise terrifically well-photographed (in the top rank of Wyler's black-and-whites, which is the majority of his movies), The Desperate Hours earning its noirish classification more by how it looks, and how Lee Garmes's cinematography imposes a certain mood on it—not with stark lighting schemes or expressionist-influenced shadows (so it's no Paradine Case, plausibly Garmes's best-shot film, though it certainly uses inky, Tolandesque pools of shadow awfully well when it wants to). Instead, then, it's usually a silvery, low-contrast dark gray that collects all the small features of the house, but, by quirk of plot that requires Glenn keep the lights out at night, operates largely in a just-this-side-of-underlit twilight. Then the finale totally upends this aesthetic, the same way its violence upends the plot, with bright, coruscating lights that blot out detail the other way around, along with a preceding opening-up of shot scales and action that feels queasily unreal, even nightmarelike, in comparison to the pressure-cooker Glenn's gang had made of the house, which in its long occupation—even in its perversions of domesticity—had become almost cozy, while a neighborhood swarming with machine-gun toting cops comes off like an apocalypse.
Oh, it's not flawless: Gail Kubik's musical score is so minimally present that when the music does pop up, it's distracting; and it has at least one medium-sized problem, too, with a script that spends a whole first act positing that Glenn has a vendetta against Det. Bard, a character motivation that informs almost nothing that follows (I don't mind Bard having a personal connection to the case, but it's awfully hard to say that even a single beat of the plot would change if Glenn didn't remember who Bard was). These are about the only unnecessary elements in a film that, otherwise, is almost nothing besides necessary elements; still, they don't matter much in their not mattering, even if they are a shade annoying. All told, The Desperate Hours opens up the final and best third of Wyler's career in spectacular fashion, arguably even benefiting from his lack of any special extrinsic motivation to make it, so there was nothing in the way of him simply doing the work he'd always done to make his movies great—even as his personal touch and his perennial themes wound up seeping in anyway, making it even greater.