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Archive for the ‘1955’ Category

Click for larger imageFor 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.

Studio issued still of Fredric MarchI 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.

The family and the convictsThe cast of “The Desperate Hours”
A family in crisis: Scenes from ‘The Desperate Hours’

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.

The paperback novelOddly 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.

Life magazine - Page 1Life magazine - Page 2Life magazine - Page 3

the Broadway cast of “The Desperate Hours”Newman and Malden of Broadway’s “The Desperate Hours”
Top row: 3 pages from the controversial Life magazine article; bottom row: two stills from the Broadway version of The Desperate Hours, starring Karl Malden and Paul Newman

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) Robert Middleton waves a gunboyfriend 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!

Bogie and Bacall at the Premiere of The Desperate Hours (10/5/55)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!

Gratuitous shirtless shot of Paul Newman - because I CAN
While its addition is suspect, I’ve included a photo to show you what Paul Newman looked circa mid-50’s. Ahem.

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.

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Arthur Kennedy as Barney Castle

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I absolutely adore Arthur Kennedy. This is going to sound a little weird, but out of all the classic movie actors I love, he is the one I spend the most time obsessing over (watching his films, reading about, collecting memorabilia, etc.) Not only do I think he’s a wonderful actor, but he’s one of the most handsomest, attractive actors that I’ve ever seen.

What? Stop looking at me like that.

It was after seeing his performance as Jim Lefferts in Elmer Gantry (1960) that I became interested in his work and from then on, I started taping and watching every movie of his I could get my hands on. I figured it would be just a phase–after all, I went through my Joseph Cotten, Martin Balsam, and Alan Arkin phases and came out fairly unscathed. That was two years ago and Arthur Kennedy still holds a high place in my heart, only slightly challenged by my relatively newfound love for Robert Ryan. One day, I’ll bore everyone with nice, long entries about both of them in “Classic Movie Actors I Obsess Over” posts.

trial1955_small.jpgBut instead of that, I’d like to recommend for you the 1955 courtroom drama, Trial, which airs February 29 at 8 am on TCM. Set those VCR’s or DVD/DVR Recorders! Although it boasts an impressive cast that’s headed by Glenn Ford and Dorothy McGuire, it remains a relatively obscure film today. Directed by Mark Robson, Trial is the story of a young Mexican boy named Angel Chavez (Rafael Campos), who gets caught up in the murder of a caucasian girl. Racial tensions already run high through the town and the accusation against Chavez only adds fuel to the fire. Enter David Blake (Glenn Ford), a law professor who finds out that he needs more courtroom experience in order to keep his job at the University. Blake goes from lawyer to lawyer and is rejected by all–except for Barney Castle (Kennedy), who is also handling the controversial Chavez case. Working for Castle is his attractive assistant, Abbe Nyle (Dorothy McGuire), who has a somewhat shady past of her own. As Chavez’s case gains momentum and his trial begins, Castle heads off to New York City with Mrs. Chavez (Katy Jurado) to raise money for his defense fund. Soon after, Blake joins them, only to find out that Castle is using Angel as a cover to raise funds for the Communist Party. I’m not going to spoil the rest of the story for you though–you’ll have to watch it yourself.

Rafael Campos and Glenn FordDorothy McGuire, Katy Juardo, Arthur Kennedy
The cast of Trial: Rafael Campos, Glenn Ford, Dorothy McGuire, Katy Juardo and Arthur Kennedy

Trial is directed by Mark Robson, a director who has been forgotten over time except by die hard classic movie fans. But one look at his filmography and you’ll see that he directed many important classics: Peyton Place, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and The Harder They Fall as well as the late-60’s cult classic, Valley of the Dolls. Despite it’s obscure status, Trial is probably one of his best works. Before filming, Robson insisted his actors attend rehearsals and I’ve noticed that it always pays off in the end, especially in an ensemble movie like Trial. Everyone works off one another seamlessly and the dialogue is sharp. It’s as though you’ve stepped into a real-life situation, not a Hollywood movie.

And of course there’s Arthur Kennedy. As the slick, manipulative Barney Castle, there’s no doubt that he has the best role in the movie. There are so many facets to his character. At first, he comes across as the overbearing lawyer who seems to have Chavez’s best interests at heart. But by the time Blake arrives in New York City, Castle’s cover is blown: he’s really a card-carrying Communist who only cares about raising money for the “All People’s Party.” When Blake finds out, he’s livid. He argues that the majority of the All People’s Party are Communists, to which Castle flippantly replies that it’s actually “about 60% and some of them are cheating the party out of it’s dues.” Blake tells him he wants none of the Party’s money for Chavez’s defense fund and without missing a beat, Castle sneers, “You want nice honorable American money, not dirty Commie money.” He’s heartless. It suddenly becomes clear: Angel Chavez has ceased to be a human being. He’s strictly a commodity. Castle has dollar signs for eyes and he’s completely soulless. Kennedy plays the character to the hilt, making him equal parts despicable and smarmy.

Barney Castle, crowd charmer

The backdrop of the Free Angel Chavez rallyHowever, it’s Kennedy’s performance at the “Free Angel Chavez” rally that shows the true test of his acting skills. With banners boasting messages like “Peace” and “Freedom”, Castle works the assembled crowd of thousands before him like an old pro, winning them over with his charm and charisma, but not before launching into what he calls (in private, of course) “The Sea of Green bit.” He asks the entire audience to hold up one dollar bills, and then tells them to close their eyes, promising the money will still be there when they open them back up. He’s lying of course. A man like Barney Castle has never told a truth in his life. And when the disgruntled crowd finds out that they’ve been had, Castle just laughingly tells them, “Don’t trust anybody!” and they eat it up. It’s amazing to watch Kennedy work the volunteers that quickly move around to collect the money. He hustles them, quickly moving back and forth from each side of the stage, while clapping his hands to encourage them. It’s an amazing performance to watch–one that simultaneously impresses and angers you.

Taking on a such a role in the 50’s was fairly dangerous: thanks to McCarthyism, Communist paranoia was still rampant. The liberal Kennedy once donated money to the New York Post, supporting editorials that lambasted McCarthy for all the damage he was doing. After seeing his name attached to one of these anti-McCarthy advertisements, a man contacted Kennedy thinking he was giving money to the Communist Party. Luckily, Kennedy’s cousin was a leading man in the New England chapter of the FBI and this cleared him. Or was it the fact that he was Irish and served in WWII’s Motion Picture Unit? It seems that other liberal Irish actors who served in the war (Gene Kelly and Robert Ryan first come to mind) also escaped the era unscathed based on the fact that they were Irish and Catholic, therefor no Irish Catholics could ever be Communists. The mindset of that era boggles my mind sometimes.

Barney Castle, working the crowd into a frenzyRobson was what Kennedy called “his lucky rabbit’s foot”. This would be his third Robson-directed performance to be nominated for an Oscar, the other ones being Champion (1949) and as a lead actor, Bright Victory (1951). Kennedy would lose the Oscar to Jack Lemmon for Mister Roberts, and would be nominated for one more Robson directed picture, Peyton Place (1957). His final supporting actor nomination came for his turn as a philandering husband in Vincent Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958). However, Kennedy did win the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for Trial, so it was nice to see that the Hollywood Foreign Press recognized his outstanding work as Barney Castle. I’m not sure if any other actor could pull such a smarmy characterization off like Kennedy did. There was something so real about him. It wasn’t just in the delivery of his lines, but the expression on his face, the movement of his body–not to mention his arrogant nature. By the end of the film, Castle turns out to be such a horrible person, you’re practically hissing at the screen.

Of course this review might be somewhat biased since I’m such a huge fan of Arthur Kennedy. I could rattle off at least 10 other films where I think he put in outstanding work, but I won’t. I’ll save those for other posts. But if you’re into well-written and acted courtroom dramas from the 50’s or want to see one of Hollywood’s most popular supporting actors doing some of his best work, I wholeheartedly suggest you give Trial a chance. And if you don’t like it, you can come here and tell me that I have lousy taste in movies.

Information about Kennedy taken from Arthur Kennedy, Man of Characters by Meredith C. Macksoud, with Craig R. Smith and Jackie Lohrke. One of my all time favorite biographies!

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