Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart), Hal Griffin (Dewey Martin) and Sam Kobish (Robert Middleton) have managed to escape from prison. Knowing that the law will be on to them soon, they decide to hide out in a randomly selected house in the suburban Indianapolis area.
The home they select is that of the Hilliard family. Dan (Fredric March) and Ellie (Martha Scott) live in the home with their 19-year-old daughter Cindy (Mary Murphy) and their young son Ralph (Richard Eyer).
The convicts only plan to say in the house until midnight, at which point Glenn’s girlfriend is supposed to bring him a wad of cash he had hidden away. But while they’re in the house, they’ll have to contend with Dan Hilliard, who will do anything to protect his family.
The Desperate Hours (1955) was directed by William Wyler. The screenplay was written by Joseph Hayes, adapted from his own novel and play. The film was awarded Best Motion Picture from the 1956 Edgar Allan Poe awards, a National Board of Review award for Best Director and 3rd place in the Best Director category from the New York Film Critics Circle.
“They just don’t make ’em like they used to” is a phrase commonly used by fans of older films. For the home invasion-based brand of thriller, this certainly is true, and The Desperate Hours serves as a reminder of that.
Set in the Indianapolis suburbs, the film opens with an average morning for the Hilliard family, driving home the “It could happen to anyone!” message and drawing the audience into the film’s terror. As dad and daughter leave for work and the young son heads off to school, mom hears a story about escaped convicts on the radio but doesn’t pay much mind to it. You never expect three angry convicts to invade your home on a pleasant, normal day in suburbia, but oh, just you wait!
The contrast between the trivial ups-and-downs of the family’s daily life with the much more serious problem of contact with violent convicts is emphasized by these early scenes of relative calm. The biggest worry for the Hilliards prior to the invasion is whether or not Cindy’s boyfriend will propose to her soon.
Once the Griffin brothers and their good buddy Kobish enter the picture, the film gains an incredibly tense mood which does a great job of keeping the viewer in suspense throughout its entire running time. The Desperate Hours doesn’t need to rely on gimmicks or explicit violence; the presence of the criminals alone and the fact that they’re so easily able to take control of the household is enough to keep the viewer on the edge of their seat in fright.
Adding to the film’s greatness is the cast. Solid performances are given across the board, but Bogie and March are obviously the central focus of the film. They have the most meaty roles, and playing against each other they give the film’s strongest performances.
Bogie’s role is similar to his role in The Petrified Forest in that he’s holding a group of innocent people hostage, but the similarities end there. His character in The Petrified Forest is full of hopelessness, while Glenn Griffin is just plain sinister. He has a very dark sense of humor and sees himself as a wise, powerful man.
This was the only film that Bogie and March made together. Both are such legendary talents that the fact that they’re co-starring is reason enough to give the film a watch, but the dynamic between the two makes it even more worthy of the viewer’s time. March is a strong match for Bogie’s criminal mastermind. Dan is a character completely determined to do whatever it takes to save his family, and in the process of facing off with Glenn he learns a lot about his own strength.
The Dan vs. Glenn battle leads up to an amazing ending, where the tension gets even greater than it was before. It’s a satisfying conclusion to what was already a wonderful thriller. The score: 5/5!
Reviewin’ the Box: The Desperate Hours on DVD
What’s in the box?: A single disc featuring the film
Packaging: 4/5 Standard plastic case; Cover design features a cool photo of an angry-looking Bogie holding a gun.
DVD quality: 5/5 Picture and sound quality are both stellar. No complaints here.
Special features: 0/5 Unfortunately, this DVD release is lacking in special features — not even a trailer or short commentary is included.
Overall score: 4/5 Since the DVD is less than $5 from the WB Shop, I won’t fault it for the lack of features.