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The Desperate Hours

The Desperate Hours(1955)

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teaser The Desperate Hours (1955)

William Wyler's The Desperate Hours (1955) stars Humphrey Bogart in a villainous role that's virtually the mirror image of the character he played two decades earlier, in The Petrified Forest (1936). This was only fitting, as it drew Bogart's storied career full-circle: the legendary actor would be dead from cancer in 1957, two years after the release of The Desperate Hours.

As the story opens, a convict named Glenn Griffin (Bogart) escapes from prison with his kid brother, Hal (Dewey Martin), and fellow prisoner, Kobish (Robert Middleton), in tow. The men eventually enter a tidy suburban home, where they take a middle-class family hostage. The father, Dan Hilliard (Fredric March), is forced to watch as the convicts psychologically and physically abuse his wife (Martha Scott), 10 year-old son (Richard Eyer), and teenage daughter (Mary Murphy). But Glenn and his cohorts aren't going anywhere until some money is delivered to the home by his girlfriend. Wyler sees to it that the pressure reaches an unbearable level, until Hilliard is forced into action.

Bogart attempted to purchase the rights to the popular 1954 novel, The Desperate Hours, for himself, but quickly agreed to do the picture when Paramount outbid him. Although his role was originally written for a much younger man (30 year-old Paul Newman played the role on Broadway, shortly after the movie wrapped production), author Joseph Hayes, who adapted his own novel to the screen, realized that there might be a more antagonistic relationship between the escaped convict and the head of the household if the two men were closer in age. So he happily re-wrote the character to accommodate Bogart. (Wyler badly wanted Spencer Tracy to play the role that finally went to March, but couldn't convince either Tracy or Bogart to accept second billing!)

Wyler and Hayes aimed to generate a slightly different kind of tension with The Desperate Hours than you get in most thrillers. In the opening act of the film, Wyler noted, "the audience wants to see the police reach the criminals. Then it wants this even more strongly when the criminals enter the house. It watches the police work, get closer, become stymied. But it slowly dawns on the audience that things might be much worse for the Hilliards if the police do come. Still, is there any way out if the police do not come? By forcing the audience to face this question, we force them into Dan Hilliard's mind. They take on Dan's anxiety." This masterstroke lends the film an almost nightmarish quality.

But getting it on celluloid wasn't always easy. The Desperate Hours was filmed from mid-October until December of 1954. On the first day of shooting, Paramount invited a gathering of name actors to the set to generate some advance publicity. Wyler, who was widely known to film the same scene over and over again until he found exactly what he was looking for, didn't disappoint: the director forced March and Scott to kiss each other goodbye at the front door no less than 50 different times!

Scott eventually approached Wyler and asked him if she was doing something wrong. Wyler replied that she was fine, but he was trying to wear March out because he was supposed to be late for work and needed to have a "harried" look on his face. After this rather ridiculous display of power, at least one of the visiting actors, Rod Steiger, decided that he would never, ever work with William Wyler. And he kept his promise to himself, by later turning down a role in Wyler's proposed adaptation of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel.

However, like many other actors who worked on the famed director's pictures, Fredric March always supported Wyler's methods: "It's easier to know that Wyler is Hollywood's finest director of actors than it is to explain it. He doesn't articulate his criticism. But you sense his dissatisfaction. He seems to know when there's more to be gotten than you're giving. And he's relentless until he has it. The released print is the deferred proof."

Producer: William Wyler
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Joseph Hayes (based on his novel and play)
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Editor: Robert Swink
Music: Gail Kubik
Art Design: Hal Pereira, Joseph McMillan Johnson
Set Design: Sam Comer, Grace Gregory
Special Effects: John P. Fulton, Farciot Edouart
Costume Design: Edith Head
Makeup: Wally Westmore
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Glenn), Fredric March (Dan Hilliard), Arthur Kennedy (Jesse Bard), Martha Scott (Eleanor Hilliard), Dewey Martin (Hal), Gig Young (Chuck), Mary Murphy (Cindy), Richard Eyer (Ralphie), Robert Middleton (Kobish), Alan Reed (Detective), Bert Freed (Winston), Ray Collins (Masters), Whit Bissell (Carson).

by Paul Tatara

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