Once again I’m taking part in a blogathon – this time it is the Universal Backlot Blogathon, organised by Kristen of the Journeys on Classic Film website. A number of bloggers are taking part and covering a wide range of films made on the Universal backlot , to celebrate its 100th anniversary – please do visit Kristen’s site and take a look at the other postings.
First of all, a confession… I’ve belatedly realised that the film I’ve chosen to write about, William Wyler’s thriller The Desperate Hours starring Humphrey Bogart, was in fact mainly filmed on Paramount’s sound stages, with specially-built sets including a seven-room family house. Only some exteriors were shot on the Universal backlot. However, the way this film cranks up the tension to unbearable heights does have something in common with Universal’s famous horror films, even if in this film the horror unfolding is all too realistic, and the monster is just a man with a gun.
The film follows a couple of days after three escaped convicts, led by Glenn Griffin (Bogart) force their way into a quiet, middle-class suburban Mid-Western home. They take Dan Hilliard (Frederic March) and his family hostage while they wait for money to be sent from Griffin’s girlfriend. The noirish black-and-white photography by Lee Garmes helps to build the mood of fear, as events unfold with agonising slowness while it seems as if the intruders are making themselves at home and will never leave. Wyler had already tackled a story of an intruder in the house in the powerful sequence from Mrs Miniver where a wounded German airman breaks into the Miniver kitchen and menaces Greer Garson, while at the same time asking for her help and demanding food. There are similar ironic contrasts here as Bogart smashes furniture or brandishes a gun in the face of Mrs Hilliard (Martha Scott) at one moment, and cosily sits down for breakfast like one of the household at another. There are also intercut scenes of the police investigating the case, led by Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard (a fine, tough performance by Arthur Kennedy) – these scenes tend to seem much faster than the ones within the house, and recall the mood of Wyler’s great police procedural Detective Story (1951).
Unfortunately, one thing which does break the tension of the film is the number of scenes where members of the family are allowed to go outside and pursue their everyday life in order to avoid arousing suspicion. They are warned they must not contact police or the family members still in the house will die. In particular, there are several unconvincing scenes where daughter of the household Cindy (Mary Murphy) goes on dates with older boyfriend Chuck (Gig Young) and bravely refuses to tell him what she is worried about. This was a film “ripped from the headlines” – writer Joseph Hayes said in an article about the stage version, headlined Fiction out of Fact, that he had several real-life cases in mind but did not research them, instead relying on his imagination. However, an article in Life magazine claimed the story was based on the real-life ordeal of the Hill family in 1952. The Hills then sued Time Inc for falsely stating that the film portrayed what actually happened – in reality, the gangsters had treated them with far more dignity than their near-namesakes in the movie. (This case rumbled on for 12 years and ended up in the Supreme Court, which narrowly found for Time Inc.) In any case, there have been plenty of real-life cases over the years where families have been held hostage while a banker or supermarket manager was forced to go and rob a workplace – but the film possibly pushes this idea too far. Wyler showed in Counsellor at Law (1933) that he was great at making a film largely confined to the walls of one building, and could perhaps have done the same thing here.
This is one of several films made in the 1950s, amid the mood of Cold War/McCarthyite paranoia, which showed intruders taking over homes and holding families hostage. An earlier example is the powerful noir drama He Ran All the Way (1951), with John Garfield as a small-time thief who hides out in a working-class New York family’s apartment, and another on the same theme which I’ve written about here in the past is Suddenly (1954), starring Frank Sinatra as a gangster terrorising a perfect small-town household. In all of these the family is idealised as it is being torn apart, and, even as the intruder mocks and bullies his hostages, there is a feeling that he is jealous of the close relationships he is watching from outside. There had been earlier films about criminals holding groups of people hostage, including two starring Bogart, The Petrified Forest (1936), where he is the gun-wielding thug holding his captives in a diner, and Key Largo (1948), where he is the hero hoping to save people trapped in a hotel from a menacing Edward G Robinson. But the 1950s films on this theme bring the gangsters into an ordinary home setting, which is still more disturbing.
Writer Joseph Hayes adapted his own bestselling novel as a play, and then turned it into a film. According to Jan Herman’s biography of Wyler, A Talent for Trouble, the film was made in the winter of 1954, before the stage play started its run, but the film’s release was then held back until the play had closed in late 1955. The novel features a young gangster contrasted with an ageing householder, and the Broadway production stuck to this, with a pre-stardom Paul Newman cast opposite Karl Malden. In his article mentioned earlier, Hayes shows that this age gap was originally important to him. He writes:
Curiously enough, I discovered as I wrote that the principal theme came into focus; the life-and-death struggle between a typical, law-abiding man, with no knowledge of his own inner resources or of the precious quality of his way of life, and the twisted, jungle-like mind of a young criminal, himself a human being and a victim. It became more and more interesting to explore a mind that has almost totally escaped the civilizing influences of our society. (And why are there so many like him today?)
As with so many classic films, the casting was a problem. Wyler originally wanted to stick with the scripted young criminal and older father figure, and, again drawing on Herman’s book, he hoped to cast Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda as the anguished father, and James Dean or Marlon Brando as the gangster. This would have been a fascinating contrast of acting styles. (It doesn’t sound as if Newman was considered, and of course the film was made before he had played the part on Broadway.) However, Wyler wasn’t able to get his first choices and in the end went for Bogart – who was keen to play the gangster role and had tried to buy the rights himself – as Griffin. Wyler then hoped to cast Spencer Tracy as Hilliard, but this fell through because neither Bogart nor Tracy was prepared to accept second billing. Fredric March, however, was willing to take second billing and was cast as Hilliard.
So it was now a tale of two men in their 50s confronting one another – both looking world-weary and older than their years. Hayes did some rewriting to accommodate this and became interested in the idea of the two as rival father figures – something which works very well in the film, as Hilliard’s picture-perfect family is contrasted with Griffin’s fraught and messy relationship with his much younger brother, Hal (Dewey Martin) and another gangster, the overweight and hard-drinking Sam Kobish (Robert Middleton), who is along for the ride. At one stage Griffin boasts to Hal: “I taught you everything” – and Hal snaps back “Yeah, except how to live in a house like this.” The arrogance on Bogart’s face fades in an instance, to be replaced by bewilderment and a hint of shame.
There are some conflicts within the Hilliard family too, in particular with the rather too-sweet small boy Ralphie (Richard Eyer) accusing his father of cowardice – but he gradually comes to realise just how brave both his parents are really being. Dan Hilliard also feels that Chuck is too old for his daughter and there are some good scenes between March and Young where Chuck tries to get through to his prospective father-in-law, showing how similar they are in character. Chuck stands up to Dan as Dan himself stands up to the gangsters. Cindy herself doesn’t get to do all that much apart from looking frightened, and in general I do feel there is a lack of focus on the women characters in this film by comparison with some of Wyler’s others. But Martha Scott and Mary Murphy do the best they can with their rather limited screen time and Scott in particular has some touchingly understated moments of tenderness with March.
Bogart gives a great performance as a violent gangster who nevertheless has flashes of the nicer man he could have been, doing a lot wordlessly with the changing expression of his eyes. March is equally powerful as Hilliard, a man on the edge and struggling to keep his emotions grimly under check. Vulnerability is one of March’s key qualities as an actor, earlier in his career often mixed with mischief, as in A Star is Born - and he does get one scene here where he lets that quality show too, as he is forced to play a comic drunk to get rid of son Ralph’s school teacher. But mostly he is serious, subdued and, above all, exhausted. Wyler is famed for insisting on repeated takes, and according to accounts of filming he did that again with The Desperate Hours, wanting to get the actors tired so that they appeared more natural. I remember reading a biography of Bogart which recounts how he got fed up with having to run up and down the stairs (many Wyler films feature a lot of scenes centred on staircases, as this one does) and in the end asked Wyler to play the scene himself to show him what he wanted. Wyler’s response was to say “It’s a wrap!”
The film, from Paramount Entertainment, is surprisingly expensive on DVD in both regions 1 and 2, but I was lucky enough to get hold of a second-hand region 2 DVD , which has great picture quality, although it doesn’t feature any extras. It is also quite often shown on TV, in the UK anyway. There have been two remakes, a TV version in 1967 starring George Segal and Arthur Hill, which isn’t available, and a 1990 feature film directed by Michael Cimino, with Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins – I haven’t seen this one (as yet) and so don’t know how it compares, but would be interested to hear people’s views on it.
For further reading, here is a link to John Greco’s great review at 24 Frames, featured in the recent William Wyler blogathon (John, I resisted rereading your review before writing this one to avoid copying you too much!) and also to another fine review at the Roadshow Version blog which includes more about the Life magazine controversy.