Screen legend Humphrey Bogart was only 57 years old when he passed in January 1957. In the three decades of his film acting career, he contributed so many unforgettable characters to the silver screen–with over a dozen exceptional standouts. From his famous ruthless gangsters, that included the likes of Duke Mantee in “The Petrified Forest” (1936); “Baby Face’ Martin in “Dead End” (1937); James Fraser in “Angles with Dirty Faces” (1938) or Roy Earle in “High Sierra” (1941).
Then recall his tough private detectives and adventurers, like Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), Harry Morgan in “To Have and Have Not” (1944), Phillip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep” (1946), and Fred C. Dobbs in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948). And let’s not forget his three Oscar-nominated performances as Rick Blane in “Casablanca” (1943), Charlie Allnutt in “The African Queen” (1951)—his only Oscar and Captain Phillip Francis Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny” (1954).
But Bogart’s next to last screen appearance as Glenn Griffin took a dark turn to the unpleasant, in William Wyler’s somewhat forgotten thriller “The Desperate Hours”. The story based on a novel and the Tony Award-winning best play of 1955, written and adapted by playwright Joseph Hayes, is about three escaped convicts who take a suburban Indianapolis family hostage.
“The Desperate Hours” packs a real punch in just under two hours. Glenn, his younger brother, Hal and third con named Sam Kobish, break into the home of Dan and Ellie Hilliard and begin a nearly two-day siege of terror. The film featured a cast of Frederic March and Martha Scott, as Dan and Ellie. Arthur Kennedy is local sheriff Jesse Bard.
The film’s pleasant beginning shows the ideal suburban Hilliard household at morning breakfast. Mom is serving up coffee, eggs and cereal; dad, getting ready to go to work and the kids, nineteen-year-old Cindy, and nine year-old Ralphie off to school. Once everyone is off for the day Ellie begins her chores and hears a radio report of the escaped convicts. Glenn is reportedly heading to the area seeking revenge from the local sheriff Bard, who broke his jaw four years before after Glenn’s attempted escape from the shooting of another area policeman.
Within hours the cons select the peaceful Hilliard home, with the bike left in the front yard, and take Ellie hostage. When Dan and daughter Cindy return at the end of the day they’re surprised that mom left the car out of the garage, then quickly learn another strange car is parked inside. Soon the entire family is held captive and told the cons will hang out at least till midnight when Glenn’s friend will deliver some much needed cash. Everyone is warned to not try anything foolish or notify the police.
In the Broadway production Glenn was played by the 30-year-old Paul Newman. Bogart biographer Alan G. Barbour claims, “On stage, the much younger Paul Newman could verbally and physically command a greater believability than the older Bogart. Harassed captives might entertain thoughts of tackling an over-the-hill Bogart—never a menacing Newman…Yet, aside from Bogart’s personal unhappiness with the picture’s commercial failure, his performance is one of his best.”
Throughout the hostage siege, Glenn plays a sly sort of cat-and-mouse game with Mr. Hilliard, as he realizes the protective father is likely planning a scheme to save his family from further peril. Whenever Dan seems like he’s quietly thinking up a plan of retaliation, Glenn mockingly comments, “Crickety, crickety,.. click…”
Wyler and his director of photography Lee Garmes add an effective grim touch to the film with crisp black and white camera work. With the high contrast of darker tones and at various times with expressive use of low angled shots that frame action from the first floor with tightly framed actions on the second-floor stairs and walkway of the Hilliard’s home, the tension in many of these domestic scenes is greatly enhanced.
While “The Desperate Hours” may not live up to the highest caliber of Wyler’s prestige films, like the Oscar-winning “Best Years of Our Lives,” “Mrs. Miniver” or “Ben Hur,” it is still a very fine film.
In the 1967 “Bogie: The Definitive Biography of Humphrey Bogart” author Joe Hyams notes that Bogart told his agent and close friend, Mary Baker, when the picture was finished he seriously thought, “It was the best part I’ve had since The Petrified Forest.”
And by all means, don’t confuse this film with Michael Cimino’s awful 1990 remake that featured Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins