For most people, the 1955 version of The Desperate Hours is remembered as the film that features Humphrey Bogart’s last tough guy role. For myself, it’s the film that reminds me of Fredric March. I watched The Desperate Hours when I was first getting into movies, so none of the actors involved–with the exception of Bogie–were familiar to me. A few years later and I’m a huge fan of Fredric March, Arthur Kennedy and Gig Young! How about that?
The Desperate Hours is a taut, exciting crime drama, expertly directed by William Wyler. The plot revolves around an ordinary suburban family, whose life is shockingly disrupted when three escaped convicts break into their home and hold them hostage while waiting for some getaway money to arrive. Bogie plays Glenn Griffin, the leader of the convicts, while March is the levelheaded, yet tense, father who attempts to hold his family together. As a criminal, Bogie is always good. I’ve never really seen him phone in a performance (although the bizarre 1939 horror flick, The Return of Dr. X, ranks pretty high on that list) and the character of Glenn is what Duke Manatee (from The Petrified Forest) would be like had he grown older. Yet, it’s Fredric March who really made the movie for me.
I owe my love of Fredric March to this film. A few years later when I viewed The Desperate Hours again, I realized what a powerful actor March was. As Dan Hillard, he appears cool under pressure–yet, you know that it’s all an act. He’s terrified that one wrong move will affect the fate of his family, and he does all he can to protect them. Can you imagine going to work while your wife and kids are back home, being held hostage by three gun-toting nuts? In one particular scene, March’s talents are on full display. After being visited by son Ralphie’s schoolteacher, March must pretend that the convicts lurking in the house are old friends that he met that afternoon in the bar. Adding to that, Ralphie has given his teacher a note describing the situation, disguised as homework. When March spots it, he must take it away before she leaves the house. And if that weren’t enough, he leeringly asks the teacher to “join the party!” as a cover for his nervous state. It’s marvelous, layered acting on March’s part.
Surprisingly though, March’s participation in The Desperate Hours almost never happened. The role of Dan Hillard was originally meant for Bogie’s good friend, Spencer Tracy. Since both of them were used to top billing, neither wanted to concede that first above-the-title spot to the other. And so, Tracy was out and March (who was pretty much second or third billed in all his later movies) was in. And thank goodness for that! While I love Spencer Tracy, there’s just something about Fredric March that grabs me. He’s a brilliant actor who always manages to find the heart of his characters, no matter what the situation. While he’s notable for so many wonderful films (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, A Star is Born, The Best Years of Our Lives and Inherit the Wind to name a few), one of my favorite performances is his portrayal of Jean Valjean in 1935’s Les Misérables, a movie I thought I would never like. Yet, it’s March’s skills as an actor that draw me in and make me care about this escaped French prisoner who creates a new life for himself. I’m not one for historical epics, but I love Fredric March in them. Go figure.
Oddly enough, the backstory of The Desperate Hours originated from a real life hostage situation that took place in 1952. After reading about it in the papers, writer Joseph Hayes then turned the story of the Hill family into a 1953 novel and then wrote the script for the Broadway play. Directed by Robert Montgomery and starring Karl Malden and Paul Newman in the March and Bogie parts, The Desperate Hours won Tony awards for Best Director (Montgomery) and the Best Play of 1955.
Using the real house of the Hills (who had since moved away after the incident) and the cast of the Broadway play, Life magazine published an article that recreated many scenes from their ordeal. However, the Hills then sued Life magazine for falsifying the article. The magazine stated that the Hills were assaulted and sworn at–claims that the family’s patriarch chalked up to being false. In fact, the Hills were treated rather civilly by the convicts (but that wouldn’t make a good story now, would it?). The case wound up bouncing back and forth in court–at one point, the Hill’s attorney was future president Richard Nixon–with both sides winning and losing at different points. In the end, the case just fizzled out and the results were unknown. Either the Hills abandoned the suit or settled out of court with Time, Inc., the publishers of Life magazine.
Despite the real life drama, the film version of The Desperate Hours turned out to be a hit. Much of the credit is due to William Wyler, who has a knack for making the most mundane scene interesting. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Gig Young’s experience in this film. While exhausting for an actor, Wyler’s strict attention to detail and demands of multiple takes pay off in the end. In the wrong hands, The Desperate Hours could have flopped, becoming boring or mundane during the middle section–but it doesn’t. If anything, the tension builds from the moment the convicts enter the Hillard’s home. There are also some interesting subplots that give the story even more emotional weight: the history between Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard (Arthur Kennedy) and Glenn Griffin, Dan’s dislike of his daughter Cindy’s (Mary Murphy) boyfriend Chuck (Gig Young), and the tragic relationship between brothers Dan and Hal (Dewey Martin), which ultimately leads to Hal’s death. From the supporting cast, Robert Middleton plays the slimy, unhinged convict, Sam. Of the three, he’s the loose cannon, the one to watch out for. Sam is almost childlike in nature, yet he’s the first one to resort to extreme violence which culminates in the murder of an innocent bystander. In so many films, Middleton excels at playing heinous criminal types and here he’s no exception. You find yourself despising him throughout the film and cheer when he finally gets his just desserts.
Wyler also knew how to lighten the tension, albeit briefly. By using one of Ralphie’s friends, he interjects little slices of humor throughout the first half of the film. After picking up Middleton from an afternoon excursion, March pulls into the driveway. Noticing that Ralphie’s football playing friends are there, he then swats them away, causing one of the kids to turn to the others and whine, “Guys, what did I do?” It’s gives the viewer a brief chuckle before turning back to the situation at hand. In another tense drama, 1951’s Detective Story, Wyler employed the same technique with the shoplifiting character played by Lee Grant. Without the slight humor that these characters offer, the tension throughout both films would be practically unbearable. After all, it is a movie–not real life!
It’s also interesting to note that in the script, the part of Glenn was aged considerably so that Bogie could play it. On Broadway, Paul Newman created the role–yet in 1955, he didn’t have much of a film career and I’m sure Wyler wasn’t willing to take a risk on a virtual unknown. Until that point, Newman had done mostly television and Broadway work (he made his Broadway debut in 1953’s Picnic). The only film on his resume was 1954’s historical drama, The Silver Chalice, which embarrassed him so much, Newman took out an ad in a trade paper apologizing for his performance. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if Paul Newman was cast in the part of the Glenn. Can you imagine being taken hostage by him? Seriously, now!
Despite my silly meanderings, The Desperate Hours is a great film and one that’s well worth your time. It was remade in 1990, but as with all remakes, they’re somewhat trite and meaningless when you compare it to the original. And the original has it all: a great script, well-thought out characterizations of three desperate men and a family in crisis, as well as a nail-biting conclusion. And of course, there’s the wonderful acting between Bogie and March, who play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse near the end of the film. Unlike so many movies that I write about, I refuse to spoil the ending here. You’ll just have to watch it for yourself.