Monday 11 June 2007

The Desperate Hours (1955) William Wyler

The Hilliards are a pretty realistic and well adjusted family. Young Ralphie wants to be called Ralph because he thinks he's all grown up now, Cindy wants to get married but her beau hasn't asked yet, and Dan and Ellie are your typical fifties suburban married couple. Unfortunately their domestic peace is invaded by an escaped gangster called Glenn Griffin and his cronies. Given that Griffin is an ageing Humphrey Bogart in his last tough guy role, you can imagine the terror that they bring into the Hillards' world.

There are a lot of very cool touches to the relationship between the three hoods. Griffin is looking old and tired but he does his best to keep control and dominate everyone around him. His brother Hal, played by Dewey Martin, is younger and more sympathetic; he initially seems content to play along but really carries a resentment in him of his more powerful brother. The third of the trio is the wild card. Robert Middleton plays Sam Kobish as half child, abrupt and quick to temper, and resentful of being the only one of them without a gun. There are dynamics going on between all three of them and we get to enjoy watching them unfold.

The Hilliards have just as many. Ralphie wants to play it tough and either take them on or escape to get help, but his dad is tough in a very different way. He's afraid and not afraid to admit he's afraid but there are things he won't stand for, regardless of the consequences. He gets a few opportunities to try things but he's very careful as to what he might be able to get away with. Ellie and Cindy are defiant in very feminine ways. Again there are dynamics between the four of them and we get to enjoy them too. This is definitely a clever script, one to pay attention to. Rather than watch and think how awful the situation is for the Hilliards, we're watching and thinking what we would do in their place.

Bogie is excellent, though it's a little hard believing him in such a tough role given his obvious age and condition. Within two years he'd be dead from cancer. Opposing him as Dan Hilliard is Fredric March, nine years older than I've ever seen him before so that he looks more like George C Scott than Fredric March. I know him as a young man far better than an old one, but he lost none of his power in the 24 years since his first Oscar playing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde back in the early precode era. He has a difficult role here, certainly the most difficult in the film, and the film and the tension build along with his performance.

Nobody lets the side down though, not the actors, from young Richard Eyer as Ralphie to those playing his family, the escaped convicts or the police. Director William Wyler never seemed to warrant any easy descriptions of his career and 'solid' is the closest I can come up with. He does a good job here, well away from the sort of movies I've seen him direct in the past. He knew both Bogart (from Dead End) and Fredric March (from The Best Years of Their Lives for which they both won Oscars). He does well with both of them here, much later in all of their careers.

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