William Wyler, 1955
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Fredric March, Martha Scott
The Hilliards – a perfectly normal, middle class family – have their day-to-day lives interrupted when three convicts invade their home one sunny morning. Composed of leader Glenn Griffin, his younger brother Hal, and the uncontrollable Sam, the three men plan to hide out in the home and wait for Griffin’s girlfriend to drop off enough money for their getaway. The money delivery keeps getting delayed and soon all four Hilliards – the parent Dan and Ellie, their 20-something daughter Cindy, and young son Ralphie – are at the mercy of the convicts. Griffin ensures Dan that if he goes for help, one of his family members will be hurt, or worse, killed.
Inspired by a real home invasion that happened to a family in Pennsylvania – The Hills – screenwriter Joseph Hayes also wrote the original novel, which was first turned into a play starring a young Paul Newman. Hayes aged the character of Griffin considerably so that Humphrey Bogart could play him in his final bad guy role. Not having seen the play, I can’t imagine the bitter and aged Griffin as anything other than a man past his prime, who has thrown caution and reason to the wind in order to make a last ditch effort to grasp the life he believes he deserves.
Suddenly, a similarly themed film starring Frank Sinatra, was made the previous year and Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker was made in 1953. The latter concerns two men on a cross-country fishing trip that are held captive by a maniac when they stop to give him a ride. It’s obvious that during this period a specific fear began to developed and fester in the American mind – the threat that the unpredictable, the mundanely evil could intrude on stable, everyday life. The villains in Suddenly, The Desperate Hours, and The Hitch-Hiker are all normal men – perhaps convicts or sociopathic killers, but they are not the cinematic monsters or gangsters of the ‘30s, or the Nazi spies or hardboiled noir criminals of the ‘40s. There is an obvious classism at play here – Griffin and his men, as well as the antagonists in the other two films, are poor and uneducated with jail time and rough childhoods, men who seemingly attack middle-class, suburban life because it will be forever out of their reach.
While watching The Desperate Hours, I was powerfully reminded of a real-life crime that would take place just two years in the future, between 1957 and 1958. Young, poor, resentful, and uneducated, Charles Starkweather grew bitter that his life in the Midwest would never rise above the poverty, squalor, or unsatisfactory professional or home life he grew up with. The 18-year-old Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, decide to change all that and take the lives they thought they deserved. After an initial, almost accidental murder, Starkweather and Fugate invaded Fugate’s home, gradually killed her family and briefly enjoyed life as homeowners. Their crime spree spread around Nebraska, taking them to the home of wealthy businessman C. Lauer Ward. After spending some time there, they killed the entire family, including the dog.
This wealth-related dissatisfaction is a central theme of The Desperate Hours. In some of the film’s most heartrending moment, the young Hal Griffin (Dewey Martin of The Thing from Another World) is exposed to the kind of life he thinks he could have had. He is kind and respectful to Cindy – in another life, she could have been his girlfriend – and looks wistfully out the window at a car full of teenagers off to have a fun night. The cleanliness and order of suburban life is essentially under attack, an order that ultimately wins out because it has pervaded all layers of life in their small town with well-manicured lawns, timely garbage men, and comfortable homes. The Hilliard home – that bastion of suburban and Middle American normalcy – was actually a movie set known as the “Paramount House,” and was used in Leave it to Beaver, a shining example of ‘50s idealism, and All That Heaven Allows, a noir-like film about suburban discontent.
Thanks to solid casting, there are a number of great performances. Interestingly, Humphrey Bogart’s career was bookended by two similar roles: as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, where he plays a convict holding people captive in a house, and here as Glenn Griffin, a bitter, aged, and desperate criminal at the end of his life. Bogie would die two years later from cancer. Bogart is wonderful in his final role, though the film belongs to the indomitable Fredric March. He may not be remembered by the latest generation of cinema fans, but his work in the Golden Age of Hollywood is incredible. From Les Misérables (1935) to the finest version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) to ever grace the screen, he’s quite a presence as the mild-mannered but determined Dan Hillier. With his wide shoulders, confident gait, and stately presence, he’s the perfect foil for Bogart’s small, dirty, sniveling, and growling head convict.
Robert Middleton (The Big Combo) is excellent as the hulking Sam, both childlike and menacing, hefting his weight around the frame and fixing his attention on the ever-changing object of his desires: children’s toys, food, alcohol, Cindy, or murdering the trash truck driver. His explosive violence and unpredictable nature adds a level of necessary tension between the three criminals that keeps both the Hilliards and viewers on their toes.
Sadly the women of the film are underwhelming, partly because their staid roles require them to be lovely, well-dressed, and passive. Martha Scott (Ben-Hur) is a solid and not overly hysterical presence as Mrs. Hilliard and Mary Murphy (she plays a similar character in The Wild One) provides a bit of fire as Cindy, though she is mostly controlled by the men around her. Griffin’s girlfriend, who plays a major role in the plot of the film, disappointingly never makes an appearance. Thanks to a strong script and expert directing from the great William Wyler, the suspense increases throughout the film. It uniquely manages to avoid a dull second act and includes a number of minor subplots, such as Cindy’s boyfriend and his rocky relationship with the family, the potential that Sam will rape Cindy, Glenn and Hal’s troubled relationship, and so on. While Wyler is often remembered for a number of fantastic romantic comedies – Roman Holiday, How to Steal a Million, Funny Girl – he shares a trait in common with the similarly named Billy Wilder. Both directors crossed a wide range of genres and Wyler was responsible for some great suspense movies and films noir, including The Letter, Detective Story, and The Collector.
The Desperate Hours is available on DVD and comes recommended. It stands as an early example of a sub-genre – the home invasion film – that would increase in popularity over the years, churning out classics in nearly every decade: The Virgin Spring (1960), Straw Dogs (1971), Fatal Attraction (1987), Funny Games (1997), and many more. Clearly this is a fear that has stayed with the American public, but which has subtly shifted throughout the years.