Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Desperate Hours (1955)

Director: William Wyler                              Writer: Joseph Hayes
Film Score: Gail Kubik                              Cinematography: Lee Games
Starring: Fredric March, Humphrey Bogart, Arthur Kennedy and Whit Bissell

This is an interesting mid-fifties thriller that attempts to capture some of the magic of the classic films of the forties. The Desperate Hours is part High Sierra, part Key Largo, and part Cape Fear, but set in the domestic doldrums of the Eisenhower years. Think Leave it to Beaver meets Panic Room. Humphrey Bogart is an escaped convict. While waiting for his girlfriend to bring him some traveling money, he decides that he and his two accomplices will hole up in a typical residential house from the period. They just happen to choose the home of Fredric March and Martha Scott and their two children.

The film is supposed to be filled with tension as the audience wonders what will happen when the police finally figure out where Bogart is. When the girlfriend doesn’t show up by midnight they have to wait until morning when the money can be delivered by the post office. Both March and Scott realize that Bogart can’t simply leave because he must assume they will call the police right away. Unfortunately the tension doesn’t translate to menace, especially since the audience has the impression that Bogart doesn’t really want to kill anyone. He threatens a lot, but for someone who has killed a cop, he’s pretty reticent to pull the trigger. In fact, the garbage man is the first one who is really threatened and retaliated against, and even then by one of Bogart's accomplices.

The story is based on the play by Joseph Hayes, which had been adapted by him from his novel. Of course it bears a striking resemblance to The Petrified Forest, especially given Bogart’s presence. But Bogart is a little long in the tooth by this time to be taken as a mad killer and seems far more concerned with getting out of town alive. He has two henchmen, a young kid played by Dewey Martin, and a big oaf with few brains played by Robert Middleton. Arthur Kennedy plays the obsessed deputy sheriff, but that element of the story only seems to dilute the tension. And the great Whit Bissell is along as the FBI agent in charge. William Wyler has an interesting directing style, partly invisible, and partly edgy, with some fascinating camera angles early on as well as late in the picture. The film score by Gail Kubik, such as it is, is virtually non-existent other than the opening titles. And that’s another thing that gives the proceedings a certain artificial quality.

Bogart is good, but the script isn’t. It takes over seventy minutes before the tension really kicks in, and that only comes from the disagreement between the criminals. It’s hinted at in the beginning, and there is some squabble over who is in charge, but it’s not until Bogart loses his gun that things really heat up. March would have been a nice foil, again, if the script had been better, and that is essentially where the film falls flat. The concept is a good one, but the execution by Hayes doesn’t translate well to the screen. He needed someone with far more Hollywood polish to spruce the thing up. Still, it is good to see veteran actors working together and, though the ending is predictable for the time, The Desperate Hours is worth a look for that alone.

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