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Joseph Hayes's best-selling novel was first published in Collier's. Hayes's stage version of the story, starring Karl Malden as "Dan" and Paul Newman as "Glenn," did not open on Broadway until February 19, 1955, shortly after shooting on the film was completed. Both the novel and the play are credited onscreen as sources, however.
As noted in a July 1956 Variety article, Hayes's story was inspired by the real-life hostage-taking of Pennsylvania residents James J. and Elizabeth Hill, who, in 1952, were held captive in their home by escaped federal penitentiary convicts. The incident was chronicled in a February 1955 Life magazine article. According to the Variety article, the Hills filed a $300,000 right to privacy lawsuit against Hayes, Paramount and novel publisher Random House, among others, claiming that the Life article, which identified their ordeal as the basis of Hayes's story, embarrassed, distressed and injured them through unlawful use of their names and photographs. The Hills argued that the article, by comparing the play and novel to their ordeal, gave the false impression that they had been abused by their captors. Although the convicts did not, in fact, harm them, the Hills wanted no reminders of the crime and had moved to another state. They refused to grant permission to publish articles about the incident and did not endorse the Life piece. Judge Saul S. Streit dismissed the complaint, noting that while Hayes was authorized by Random House to take part in promotional activities regarding the book, the Hills had not sufficiently shown that Random House was responsible for the article's publication. Streit permitted the Hills to submit an amended complaint, but the final outcome of the suit is not known.
In an October 8, 1955 New York Times item, reviewer Bosley Crowther charged that the film was irresponsible and unbelievable because it portrayed the police as grossly incompetent and untrustworthy. Hayes responded to Crowther's accusations in a October 16, 1955 column, noting that during the real-life event that inspired the book and play, a prison escapee held a young child hostage at knifepoint and threatened to harm him if the police shot at him. One policeman did shoot, and the convict stabbed and killed the child. To which real-life event Hayes is referring is unclear, however.
According to a May 1954 Daily Variety item, Humphrey Bogart, through his Santana film company, attempted to purchase the Hayes's novel but was outbid by Paramount. Bogart had played a role similar to "Glenn Griffin" in The Petrified Forest, the 1936 film that made him a star (see AFI Catalog of Motion Pictures, 1931-40). Modern sources claim that Hayes signed with Paramount because the studio agreed to hire him to write the screenplay and because of director William Wyler's reputation. Wyler had read Hayes's novel in manuscript form and, according to modern sources, asked Paramount to buy it. According to February 1956 correspondence from the Screen Writers Guild, contained in the file on the film at the AMPAS Library, John Mock and Elizabeth Eberhardy were incorrectly credited in an April 1955 Screen Achievements Bulletin listing as contributing to the screenplay's construction along with Jay Dratler.
Modern sources state that Wyler originally wanted Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda to play Dan, and Marlon Brando or James Dean to play the part of Glenn, who in the stage version, was a young man. Modern sources also claim that Wyler asked Spencer Tracy to portray Dan, but when Tracy and Bogart could not agree on screen billing, cast Fredric March, who had starred in his 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50). As noted in news items, Raymond Burr was cast in the film, but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with You're Never Too Young . News items announced that Richard Erdman had been cast in the role of a reporter, and Erdman is listed in Hollywood Reporter production charts, but neither he nor his character appear in the final film. Arthur Franz also was announced as a cast member in Hollywood Reporter, but he, too, was not in the final film. Hollywood Reporter news items add Jesslyn Fax and Ed Ralph to the cast, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Night exteriors were shot on Universal Studios' back lot, according to modern sources, and a thoroughly furnished, seven-room house was built on the Paramount lot for the film's interiors.
Despite generally good reviews, The Desperate Hours was a box office failure. On December 13, 1967, the ABC television network broadcast a version of Hayes's play, directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Arthur Hill, Teresa Wright and George Segal. In 1990, Michael Cimino directed a remake of The Desperate Hours, titled Desperate Hours. The MGM-UA release, for which Hayes received an onscreen writing credit, starred Mickey Rourke, Anthony Hopkins and Mimi Rogers.