The Desperate Hours (William Wyler, 1955)

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.

Bogart holding the family hostage

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?) 

A scene from the stage version starring a young Paul Newman

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.

Fredric March and Humphrey Bogart

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 and Mary Murphy

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.

21 thoughts on “The Desperate Hours (William Wyler, 1955)

  1. Lovely write up Judy. It’s a fine movie and the duel between Bogart and March is quite compelling.
    I also thought Robert Middleton was fantastic, and dangerously scary as Kobish.

    I’m actually quite fond of these kinds of film – I did a brief piece on the movie back in the early days of my blog. You’ve linked it in nicely to other pieces of Hollywood paranoia from the 50s that played round with the same theme. If I might recommend another that’s not mentioned: try Andrew L Stone’s CRY TERROR! with James Mason, another one I’ve written up in the past.


    • Thanks very much, Colin, I will hope to see ‘Cry Terror’ and compare it. I’ve just read your review of ‘The Desperate Hours’ and enjoyed it a lot – must agree with your comment there that neither Arthur Kennedy nor Gig Young really gets all that much scope in the movie. I do rather feel that there was a separate film which could have been made about Kennedy’s cop character! Must also agree that Middleton is excellent, comic and terrifying both at once.
      I’ll just add a link to your piece for others to check out:


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  3. Execellent look at one of my favorite Wyler films. Bogart is just great as the hoodlum, of course when isn’t he good at this type of role. I agree with you that the film does bog down a bit when it goes outside the home however, the tension overall is edge of the seat. BTW I just watched a film call THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR, a little known film with John Cassavetes that deals with the same home invasion by criminals thing. Nowhere near as good as Wyler’s film. And thanks kindly for mentioning my own review from a while back.


    • John, definitely agree Bogart was always great as a hoodlum – and very interesting to see him returning to this kind of role almost at the end of his career, after broadening his scope in the meantime. I haven’t seen that John Cassavetes film but will look out for it. Thank you very much!


  4. Judy, an excellent post. I particularly like the way you compared Hayes’s original concept of youthful criminal vs older father figure with the changes made to accommodate Bogart’s casting, especially your idea that the two groups represent two kinds of family. The situation is fraught with tension, and Bogart and March are wonderful as adversaries. It’s interesting to read how much Bogart wanted this role, since it’s so similar to the typecasting of his early days at Warners after he played Duke Mantee, something he worked hard to get away from. The film does have its weaknesses, though, and I thought you did a good job identifying them. The daughter-boyfriend subplot and the parts that take place outside the house do distract from the main source of tension, which is the interplay between Bogart and March. They do serve the purpose of showing the conflict between wanting to get away from the source of danger and being compelled to return to it to protect loved ones, but they are the less exciting parts of the movie. Agree with you and Colin that Robert Middleton makes an impressively scary villain. Bogart’s menace is controlled and in its way rational, Middleton’s is unpredictable and psychotic.


    • Thank you very much for your great comments here, R.D. – I’ve been thinking about Wyler’s movies quite a bit since the excellent blogathon you ran and want to give my own take on one or two more over the coming weeks. I was also slightly surprised to hear that Bogart wanted to return to the sort of heavy role he had broken free from earlier in his career. But, of course, he had proved by then that he could play other roles, and he brings a different type of menace to this part as an older man, just as Edward G Robinson’s ageing gangster in ‘Key Largo’ is very different from Rico in ‘Little Caesar’. I like your point about Middleton’s unpredictable quality – he seems to revel in his violent outbursts, rather like Joe Pesci in ‘Goodfellas’ many years later.


  5. “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. ”

    This is exactly what always comes into my mind when this film is broached Judy. The film does hold tension quite forcefully, but as you note there are breathers that don’t exactly serve the continuity well. But it could also be argued that these scenes allow the tension to renew itself in a dramatic sense. Bogart is definitely at the top of his game and March and Middleton are excellent. You’ve penned an exceptional and especially comprehensive review for the blogothon Judy, given this often neglected film an acute focus.


    • Sam, that is a good point about the ‘breathers’ allowing the tension to renew – I suppose it might be hard to keep the tension going at the same pitch throughout. It’s a pity this film does tend to get rather neglected – it surely deserves to be included in a Bogart box set, since he is one of the few actors whose work still gets that kind of treatment. Thank you very much for your kind comment, which is much appreciated!


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  7. I’ve already heard about this movie. Someday I’ll give it a chance, being the leads talented men as Bogart and March. For sure it’ll be fascinating to imagine Dean, Brando, Cooper or Fonda in this movie. I just hope it’s not to exasperating and claustrophobic!
    I’m also in the blogathon, with an article on Man of a Thousand Faces and other on Bride of Frankenstein!


    • Le, thanks very much for the comment – the movie is quite claustrophobic, but that all helps to build the tension. Bogart and March are both great in it. I will have a look at your articles, thanks again!


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  10. I’m impressed too and having taught a Wyler film and therefore watched it and a couple others know what a fine fllm-maker he is. Let me bring in a slightly different set of ideas I heard in a paper at a session at the MLA on film. I don’t remember the names of the specific films chosen (nor the woman speaker) but they were 3 filmed just after WW2 and they were about men coming into someone’s house and shooting people dead or threatening to. i still remember the opening terrifying sequence of someone in a house with many windows and at one of them these ferocious faces with haunting shots heard. The speaker argued the films were about the violence of war and expressed the terror of people at home even if far away. She also suggested that when men go to war, they are taught to kill and to solve problems by killing and when they come home it is very hard to make a transition where killing is not allowed nor violence, and yet they want to carry on, yet are so frightened to be back in this new peaceful environment. it’s expressive film-making about the men who went to war and come back with the experiences too. If you consider — as you say this one was filmed during the supposed cold war (actually rather hot in Korea) you can see why others would be made. They might not be as good artistically or even ethical the way Wylers films ultimately are.

    We do have versions of such films today probably done very differently — maybe the Dark Knight Rises kind of thing which itself attracted real horrific violence aimed at people. It would be interesting to see a modern re-make of any of these 50s films to see what the differences are. These might tell us something about the differences between the 1950s and 21s century first decade. Also what were the gun laws then and what are they today; who can get guns now who couldn’t get them then? and when someone leaves the military service are they required to give up their gun or do they get to keep it or them?

    Troubling important film. Bogart unerringly part of it. The actor who refused for career or egoistic reasons lost out.


    • Ellen, thanks very much for the detailed and interesting comment. An interesting thought from that MLA session about the intruder bringing the violence of war into the house – this links back to the scene in ‘Mrs Miniver’ where the intruder is a German airman. In the original stage version of ‘The Desperate Hours’, the gangster was of a younger generation, but in the film I think reference may be made to both March and Bogart’s characters being war veterans – not sure, but, even if I’m misremembering that, I can see that the violence of war is still there.


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