Noirvember 2021, Episode 10: The Desperate Hours (1955)
The Desperate Hours (Paramount, 1955) directed by William Wyler
I find home invasion movies both fascinating and disturbing. According to this list of home invasion titles, I’m not the only one. Our homes are supposed to be places where we feel safe, where we can be ourselves, unthreatened and free. A home invasion takes all that away, turning what once were comforting surroundings into a prison with the constant threat of danger, injury, abuse, and death. (Although some people deal with those things even when there’s not a home invasion. A story for another time.)
The Desperate Hours was one of the first movies from the classic era that resonated with me. I’m not sure how old I was, but it might have been the first time I’d ever watched a Humphrey Bogart movie from start to finish. I’ve never forgotten it.
Based on a play and later a novel by Joseph Hayes (who also co-wrote the screenplay), which was based on actual events, The Desperate Hours establishes the fairly normal, everyday life of the middle class Hilliard family: businessman Daniel (Fredric March), his wife Ellie (Martha Scott), their 19-year-old daughter Cindy (Mary Murphy), and young son Ralphy (Richard Eyer). During just another busy “get ready for work/school” morning, the radio announces that a trio of escaped convicts could be headed to the Indianapolis suburbs. And we know exactly where they’re headed.
The group’s leader Glenn Griffin (Bogart, in his penultimate role) scopes out the Hilliard house, simply because there’s a bicycle in the yard, which implies a kid inside, and any house that has kids is a safe bet. You can always use the children as a bargaining tool against contacting the police.
Griffin is hardened but smart. Kobish (Robert Middleton) is not so smart, but rather a bit simple, childish, and impulsive. Griffin’s younger brother Hal (Dewey Martin) is quiet, obedient, and the odd man out. We wonder if he was in on both the crime that put him in prison as well as the escape out of loyalty to his brother, but he appears to be the most normal member of the group.
In no time at all, Griffin takes control of the house and makes arrangements for his girlfriend to come and pick them up. Yet he realizes that Hilliard isn’t a dope. He’s thinking, always thinking. Referring to Hilliard, Griffin remarks to his brother, ”Using his brain, is he, Hal? Look at him. Clickety-clickety-click, I can see it perkin’." Griffin knows that if anyone in the family threatens the trio, it’s Hilliard.
You’ve probably seen enough home invasion movies to know some of what happens next, but maybe you’ll be surprised. Unfortunately one aspect of the film that is routine, especially for its time, is its treatment of women. Hilliard’s wife Ellie has almost nothing to do in the film other than cry and plead with her husband not to do anything to put himself and the family at risk. Cindy has a more important role to play, occasionally answering the phone, but mainly attempting to keep her persistent boyfriend Chuck (Gig Young) in the dark as to what’s going on inside the house.
The battle for dominance between Griffin and Hilliard is the focus of the film, and it is the conduit for most of the film’s best scenes. Griffin has clearly been in tight spots before, so his confidence is high. He knows all the tricks, but realizes that Hilliard is smarter than most marks and may have a trick or two up his sleeve. He chides Hilliard for constantly thinking, but Griffin is also thinking. Hilliard may have more book smarts, maybe even ways to trip up Griffin, but not at the expense of his family. Griffin holds all the cards as well as the gun, and he knows this is probably enough to help him deal with Hilliard, but he’s not taking any chances. It’s Kobish’s stupidity and Hal’s compassion that might derail everything.
The picture also contains a subplot involving a clash between Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard (Arthur Kennedy) and FBI Agent Carson (Whit Bissell), as well as the state police lieutenant (Ray Teal). This jurisdictional entanglement may ruin their chances to capture the trio, as could Bard’s crusade to settle an old score with Griffin. Rather than treating this as a standard stereotypical subplot, the screenplay seriously wrestles with decisions of police procedure, who gets the credit if it works, the blame if it doesn’t. I’m not sure how realistic some of this is (especially near the end), but it makes for some intense drama.
I’m not sure why The Desperate Hours isn’t better regarded. It’s certainly far superior to the 1990 remake Desperate Hours, directed by Michael Cimino. The 1955 original is long, nearly two solid hours, but the running time works in the film’s favor. You could make the case that the movie contains some scenes that could’ve been cut, but the accumulation of tension, anger, and time give the audience a feel for what those indeed desperate hours would be like if we had to experience them. With each minute that passes, director William Wyler keeps applying pressure until we (and the Hilliards) think they just can’t stand it any longer.
The acting is good, and the cinematography by Lee Garmes is wonderful, but perhaps most importantly, Wyler refuses to engage in cheap shots and hackneyed tactics. It’s a good solid suspense film, and whether you want to call it a film noir is up to you. (I do.) Wyler made The Desperate Hours after his massive hit Roman Holiday (1953) and a few films before an even bigger hit, Ben-Hur (1959). The Desperate Hours tends to get lost between those two monsters, but it’s a film you should see. You can currently find it on the Criterion Channel and as a rental from the usual streaming markets.