The Desperate Hours (1955)

Cinematography Lee Garmes
Directed by William Wyler

The Desperate Hours is a 1955 film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March. The movie was produced and directed by William Wyler and based on a novel and play of the same name written by Joseph Hayes which were loosely based on actual events.


Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart) is the leader of a trio of escaped convicts who invade the Hilliard family’s suburban home in Indianapolis and hold four members of the family hostage. There they await the arrival of a package from Griffin’s girlfriend, that contains funds to aid the three fugitives in their escape.

Police organize a statewide manhunt for the escapees and eventually discover the distraught family’s plight. Griffin menaces and torments the Hilliards and threatens to kill them. Later, the unfortunate refuse collector George Patterson (Walter Baldwin), who happens upon the situation after noticing Griffin’s car in the garage, is murdered in order to silence him, after being forced to drive into the country.


Finally the father, Daniel Hilliard (Fredric March), after convincing law enforcement personnel that their plan to storm the residence is too risky for his family, plays a trick on Griffin using an unloaded handgun. He forces the convict out of the house with the outlaw’s own weapon trained on him. Griffin is subsequently machine-gunned to death, when he hurls the firearm at a police spotlight and tries to make a break for it.

Actual events that took place on September 11 and 12 in 1952, wherein the five members of the Hill family were held hostage for 19 hours, inspired the 1953 Joseph Hayes novel which, in turn, inspired the 1954 play on which the movie was based. The Hill family (formerly of Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania) sued Time, Inc., because Life magazine published an article in the February 1955 issue about the play, describing it as based on the actual events. The article was illustrated by staged photos with actors in the actual home that was the scene of the events, the Hills having moved away, making efforts to discourage publicity. The Hills’ complaint was that the article falsely described the actual events while claiming it represented the truth. Immediately following the home invasion event, Mr. Hill had told the press the family had not been molested or harmed, and in fact had been treated courteously.


The Life magazine article, however, stated that some family members had been assaulted, profanity used, and in other ways – according to a New York appellate court – differed from the account Hill had given. Suing in a New York court, the plaintiffs relied on a New York statute which permitted damages suits for violation of the right of privacy only in instances of use of a person’s name or picture for commercial purposes without consent. The statute, however, had been interpreted by the New York courts to make the truth of the publication a defense. The defense for Time, Inc., was that the matter was of general interest and the article had been published in good faith. A jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages, but the state appellate court awarded a new trial at which only compensatory damages could be considered, while sustaining liability. This order was affirmed by the highest state court.

Time, Inc., appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that the First Amendment prohibited holding the publisher liable unless the article was known by it to be false, or at least was published with disregard as to its truth or falsity (i.e., recklessly). The jury had not been so instructed, so the judgment could not stand. This ruling was a significant expansion of press protection, for a (qualified) immunity from damages was being extended to publishing matter about people who were newsworthy only by accident, as opposed to, for example, government officials.


To this point the relevant cases had only dealt with such so-called “public figures” who were suing publishers. Mr. Hill was represented in the High Court by Richard M. Nixon, at that time an attorney in private practice. The Supreme Court thus made it extremely difficult even for ordinarily private persons to prevail in a defamation or “false light” invasion of privacy case. From the Supreme Court, the case was sent back in 1967, to the New York courts for disposition under this newly announced constitutional standard, probably involving a new trial, or perhaps summary judgment rendered on the basis of affidavits and depositions.


A finely honed narrative with exquisite twists that are all too believable…

1 January 2007 | by Roger Burke (Brisbane, Australia) – See all my reviews

Bogie had done films like this one before: The Petrified Forest (1936), High Sierra (1941), Key Largo (1948) and We’re No Angels (1955) – all with Bogie as a gangster or victim of a gangster, in a desperate setting (although the last one is a comedic spoof). Desperate Hours, however, is different – this time out, Bogie (as Glen Griffin) has a whole suburban family as hostage as he tries to complete his run for freedom from the law. Is this the first such home invasion type movie? Perhaps Suddenly (1954)?

The story is simply superb. Every good narrative succeeds because of certain literary aspects: a believable story line, down-to-earth dialog that supports it, a good measure of irony at appropriate turning points, just the right amount of coincidence that can intrude on anybody’s daily experience, a dogged police officer who just won’t give up in the search for what he believes, and a family – an ordinary family – that finds within itself the courage, imagination, and strength to persevere in the face of the real threat of death.


I saw this film long ago when just a lad, so I didn’t recall much of the story at all. But, being a Bogie fan, I looked forward to seeing it again when I got a hold of a DVD recently. I don’t recall what movies were in the running for the Oscars that year, but I think this should have been a contender (apparently, it wasn’t).

The cast was well chosen. Bogie, of course, was “made” for this part, having done so many like it in the past – and that’s not a side-swipe at typecasting; Robert Middleton almost steals the movie with his portrayal of the psychopathic Kobish — a chilling portrayal; Dewey Martin as Bogie’s brother, Hal, provides a sense of decency that the other two lack, the only jarring note for me: why should he? He’s on the run, and drops all pretense of humanity when he decides to cut and run by himself. And, we know what happens to anybody who cuts and runs, right? Frederic March as Dan Hilliard ably shows what can happen to your principles and behavior when lives are at stake: most of life’s niceties go out the window as he tries to save his family.


Understandable, given the desperate situation. Martha Scott as his wife and Mary Murphy as his daughter (Cindy) are suitably frightened most of the time, but they also summon the courage to oppose the bad guys when possible. The guy who isn’t used so much is Arthur Kennedy as deputy sheriff Bard, but his role is pivotal in bringing the story to a satisfactory ending. Pity, because Kennedy was as fine an actor as Bogie or March. Gig Young, as Cindy’s suitor, rounds out the main cast – he playing the puzzled hopeful who just won’t go away when Cindy pleads with him to “stay away”. It’s just as well that he didn’t…

The setting in small town America is just right, the picture perfect home of the Hilliards standing for the American dream that is about to threatened and even destroyed. Which gives rise to one of the best lines in cinema history, spoken by March near the end: “Get out – get out of my house!” he nearly screams at Bogie, thus cementing forever in film the idea of a man’s home as his castle. Bogie visibly wilts before the stern and righteous wrath of March – but not only because of that does Bogie give it all up. You’ll have to see the film to understand why.


Most of the action is within the confines of the Hilliard house (having been a stage play first, that makes sense) and the cinematography takes full advantage of all those nooks and crannies to enthrall the viewer and keep the suspense running. I liked particularly the reasonably long take of the camera behind the bad guys while they watch the old trash collector do his work and who seems to miss the presence of their stolen car in the garage. It’s a priceless piece of work as the escapees faces keep looking at each other and then at the old man – and the viewer stays on edge, all the time, wondering: will he react?

The final showdown is simply a tour de force. It’s fast and furious, ranging all through the ground floor, up the stairs and into the bedrooms, and then back again, as the protagonists fight it out for supremacy; I was reminded of Dustin Hoffman’s running fight with the bad guys in Straw Dogs (1971). In the hands of an inept director, it would have been farcical but Wyler turns on the suspense and the irony as March overcomes his adversary – Bogie – in one of the coolest ways imaginable.


No, I won’t tell you, because that would spoil it for you.

As the credits rolled by at the end, my immediate thought was that this type of story is so believable, it could happen to me, or you…

Absorbing Mid-Fifties Noir

Author: jpdoherty from Ireland
4 March 2011
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

One of the last of the great film noirs came in 1955 in the shape of THE DESPERATE HOURS. Although it was filmed in Paramount’s own widescreen process of Vista Vision it at once established itself and maintained its arresting noir look through its stylish use of black and white cinematography – courtesy of the great Lee Garmes – and masterful direction of William Wyler. Adapted by Joseph Hayes from his novel and play the picture also boasts a terrific cast headed by Humphrey Bogart, Fredric March and Arthur Kennedy. With a nod to his Duke Mantee in “The Petrified Forest” (1936) Bogart, in his next to last film, is superb in the kind of role he knew so well, that of the hard boiled criminal.


Three escaped and armed convicts, led by notorious Glenn Griffin (Bogart), take over a house in middle class suburbia and hold the Hilliard family at gunpoint until the mail arrives the following day containing their getaway money. In the meantime the terrorized family must carry on with their everyday routine without arousing anyone’s suspicions. With the police hotly on the gang’s trail and closing in – the family little by little – begin to make attempts to outwit their unwelcome guests, gain the upper hand and thwart their plans. After two of the convicts are shot dead by the police the picture ends in a stunning sequence with the husband (March) confronting and fooling Griffin with an empty gun before the police marksmen, under huge arc lights, gun him down in a hail of gunfire in Hilliard’s own front lawn.

Thanks to Wyler’s adroit direction, his genius for camera angles and set-ups, brilliant crisp cinematography and great performances THE DESPERATE HOURS is more than a neat little thriller. Suspense is maintained throughout at a very high level. Wyler’s film proceeds with commendable energy and intensity. Mesmerizing is Bogart as the unshaven dishevelled sneering and dangerous leader of the three fugitives. His Glenn Griffin is one of his great and most underrated performances and should have at least earned him a nomination. Excellent too is the wonderful Fredric March as the beleaguered husband and father Dan Hilliard (Spencer Tracy was originally slated to play this part but neither he nor Bogart would accept second billing).


Also good is Martha Scott (Judah Ben Hur’s mother in Wyler’s 1959 epic) as the wife and mother, the likable and ill-fated Gig Young as the boyfriend of Hilliard’s daughter (played by pretty Mary Murphy). And there’s an extraordinary performance from the rotund Robert Middleton as Kobish the violent, unscrupulous and giggling puerile convict.

One disappointing aspect of the picture though is the sparse music score by composer Gail Kubik! There is an impressive raw pounding theme over the titles but no more music is heard then until towards the end of the picture. Kubik, a noted conductor, violinist and teacher was more akin to scoring shorts and documentaries and had scored only one other feature “C-Man” in 1949. It is quite extraordinary that Wyler didn’t use a more established movie composer. He had always made great use of music in his films i.e. Max Steiner for “Jezebel” (1938), Alfred Newman for “Wuthering Heights” (1939), Hugo Friedhofer for “Best Years Of Our Lives” (1946) and of course later with Jerome Moross for “The Big Country” (1958) and Miklos Rozsa for “Ben Hur” (1959). THE DESPERATE HOURS must be Wyler’s shortest and least involving score. However the minimalist score not withstanding his DESPERATE HOURS remains a stunning evocation of the best that ever there was in crime movies.


Taking the picture’s main premise Michael Comino remade the movie in 1990. It was a valiant effort spoiled by the excessive and over stylized performance by the irritating Mickey Rourke in the Bogart role – diminishing the fine portrayals of Anthony Hopkins as the husband and the excellent characterization by David Morse in the Kobish role. Ultimately though the picture, lacking the required tension and atmosphere, was little more than a pale imitation of the original.


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