Humphrey Bogart’s weathered, weary face is a perfect vehicle for the many noirs he headlined. It’s a face that lets viewers know he’s seen every trick in the book and you aren’t going to pull one over on him, but you’re welcome to give it go. Bogie’s unflappable demeanor plays extremely well when he’s on the opposite side of the law in William Wyler’s home invasion thriller The Desperate Hours.
Based on a real-life hostage situation, which was turned into both a book and a stage play by Joseph Hayes (who is also a credited writer on the film), The Desperate Hours taps into the primal fears and themes that have made the home invasion thriller such a genre stalwart. Bogart plays escaped convict Glenn Griffin, leader of a trio of escapees. Looking for a place to hide out as the rest of their plan comes together, the criminals break into the home of Daniel Hilliard and his family.
There’s a repeated image Wyler employs of a bicycle laying in the Hilliard’s front yard, haphazardly dropped there by young Ralphy (Richard Eyer). It’s the kind of quintessential image of suburbia that establishes everything the audience needs to know prior to the plot kicking into gear. As Glenn puts it while looking for a place to hide from the manhunt, “Love people with kids. They don’t take no chances.” Of course, the Hilliards certainly haven’t taken the kinds of risks someone like Glenn has, but Glenn’s assumption that he has the upper hand on the Hilliards before meeting them is the chance that begets his downfall. As the title implies, the film is a pressure-cooker and seeing how the characters react to the situation is the name of the game.
The bulk of the action takes place in the lovely upper-middle class Hilliard home, where the stage nature of the narrative comes to the fore. Wyler takes advantage of the spacious, two-story home to create a barrage of arresting imagery. The camera is constantly aiming up in a way that re-enforces the ever-evolving power dynamics at play. The screenplay shines brightest in the way it moves the occupants of the house around, offering up nearly every possible character combo.
The most exciting pairing proves to be Bogart and Fredric March, who plays Daniel Hilliard. Their confrontations pop with the electricity that can only come from two alpha personalities trying to outmaneuver each other. The Desperate Hours is at its best when it stays in the house. The action that happens when characters have a chance to leave the house is compelling, but it can’t help but feel like it’s easing the tension for the viewers.
The image of the bicycle laying askew in the yard also serves as a stark exclamation point on the film when it comes up at the end of the film. The last time Wyler shows the bike, it’s in the aftermath of a shootout between heavily-armed police and the ill-equipped Griffin. The bike serves as a taunting metaphor to Griffin. It’s the thing that lured Griffin to the house in the first place, and it’s in the same spot when Griffin leaves. The Desperate Hours is tremendously entertaining, and becomes more so as the hostage situation becomes more dire for everyone in the house.
Arrow Video has given the film a spiffy new blu-ray release that delivers the goods, and then some. The audio and video quality crackle in a way that makes the film feel like a new release. The special features are top notch as well, with a commentary track by film historian Daniel Kremer and a couple of features that dive deep into Wyler and the film. The highlight might be “Scaled Down and Ratcheted Up,” which features Wyler’s daughter Catherine, who offers up her perspective about being on the film’s set and her father’s work. The movie is gripping and the bonus features are highly entertaining and informative. Arrow has offered up a full meal for cinephiles.