—A Gangster Icon Returns One Last Time—
Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: William Wyler
Three men (Bogart, Dewey Martin, and Robert Middleton) escape prison and take an Indianapolis family hostage as they hijack their home.
What I Thought
This was the last available Bogart film out there that I hadn’t seen and I saved it for my penultimate viewing because I’d heard so many good things about it. It had been built up so much in my mind in fact, that I was afraid there was no way it could live up to its own word of mouth. Thankfully, I loved every minute of it.
Just like Bogart’s first film collaboration with Director William Wyler, Dead End, The Desperate Hours is a play brought to the big screen. Like Dead End, Director Wyler is able to widen the scope on the original source material and never make us feel as if we’re watching a “filmed play.” While 90% of the action takes place within one particular house, we get just enough exterior and other-location shots to make this feel like a fully inhabited world.
In an odd coincidence, the house used in the film is also the same one that would go on to be used for exterior shots in Leave it to Beaver. When you watch the film, it’s pretty hard not to feel a very Cleaver-ish style vibe from the family during the opening ten minutes. Director Wyler does a great job of setting up a completely tension-less, neat and tidy, suburbanite family – only to then systematically proceed to tear them apart, bit by bit.
If I had to nitpick about anything, it’d be the cast. While everyone is great in their roles, certain actors do stretch the credibility of the script just a little. So Frederic March is a 58 year old father with a 19 year old daughter and a 10 year old son. Maybe not completely out of the ordinary, as lots of couples have ‘oops’ babies later on in life. But then you have Gig Young who was over 40 playing the love interest to a character who was 19 . . . a little creepy. And when you finally factor in that Bogart and Dewey Martin play brothers separated by twenty-four years in age, you might find yourself trying to come up with a little backstory for the characters since none is provided. (So maybe they’re from one of those big Catholic families, right? And maybe they had eleven kids with Bogart being the oldest and Martin being the youngest. . . That could work, couldn’t it?) Then again, maybe I’m the only one that notices such things. March and Martin both do amazing jobs, and Bogart is so good that it’s hard to imagine a much younger actor filling the role. (I’ll cover it in ‘The Bogart Factor’ below!)
The Bogart Factor
How fantastic is it that Bogart’s first big break was as ‘Duke’ Mantee in The Petrified Forest, and then in his second to last film he returns with an almost identical character and plotline with the role of Glenn Griffin here? What an incredible double feature this would be for any classic film fans who need a great lineup on a Friday night!
So let’s talk about the elephant in the room. When the play won its Tony on Broadway, a young and much lesser known Paul Newman was the star. Half Bogart’s age, Newman’s casting makes a bit more sense when you factor in the younger brother storyline that weighs pretty heavily into plot. I can only imagine what kind of tour-de-force Newman must have been on stage, but being a celebrated Broadway actor who’d really only had bit parts on television, Newman wasn’t used for the role when it came up for grabs in Hollywood. Would it have been a better movie? Who’s to say? It would have been different for sure. It might have been an earlier launching pad for another one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors as it would still be another three years before Newman would really break out with Somebody Up There Likes Me and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
But back to Bogart! This is his second to last film and there’s no trace of the illness that would eventually take his life on display here. He looks rough and ragged, but that’s what the role calls for. He smokes, snarls, leers, and blows his top in the most masterful of ways and it’s a captivating watch. This one’s certainly going into my top one or two ‘Older Bogie’ performances, and I can’t wait to watch it again.
Frederic March plays Dan Hilliard, the father of the household where Bogart and his cronies hold up. March, while perhaps a bit long in the tooth for the role, does an outstanding job here going toe-to-toe with Bogart. When the tables turned and the gun was finally in his hands, don’t try to tell me you didn’t let out an audible “Shoot him!” just like I did!
Martha Scott plays Ellie Hilliard, the mother of the household. Out of all the characters, Ellie is the one who comes the closest to being portrayed as a two-dimensional stereotype, but Scott is given just enough brave moments to flesh the role out a bit.
Dewey Martin plays Bogart’s younger brother and fellow escapee, Hal Griffin. Again, Martin might be a tad too old for the role as he is expected to pine after his lost teenage years despite the fact that he’s over thirty. Yet, Martin handles the role well and we get a couple of really nice scenes between him and Bogart. Their final scene together is especially well handled by Director Wyler, and it earns both men a great deal of sympathy that they really don’t deserve.
Arthur Kennedy plays Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard, the lawman who makes it his personal mission to track down Bogart. There is a subplot about Bogart and Kennedy having some history together that’s never fully explored, which is a shame, but perhaps it was fleshed out in the play. Kennedy does very well here as he plays a cop obsessed with one of his former collars, and it was great to see him again after playing a smaller role in High Sierra.
Robert Middleton plays the third escaped con, Sam Kobish, and I’m amazed by how much he was able to grow on me by the end of the film. As if three escaped cons isn’t enough conflict for a script already, Director Wyler finds ways to amp up the film’s tension by constantly finding new opportunities to make Middleton seem more and more unstable as the film goes on.
Mary Murphy and Richard Eyer play the Hilliard children, Cindy and Ralphie respectively, and both do a solid job of holding up their ends of the script. While neither is given too much heavy lifting, they’re both a testament to how important younger actors can be to supporting an older cast.
Gig Young plays Mary Murphy’s lawyer love interest, Chuck Wright. As I mentioned before, the age difference here is perhaps too disparaging to forgive, but Young does fine regardless.
Classic Bogie Moment
I still hold fast that no other Classic Hollywood actor was able to convey so much with so little – especially in regards to their facial expressions. In this still below, we see the very second where Bogart’s escaped con starts to crack just a bit under the pressure. It’s not a huge moment. He could have chosen to really go for the grimace or even scream, but instead, we get just the hint of desperation begin to appear in his eyes.
The Bottom Line
If you’re like me, and you’ve waited this long in life to catch this film – don’t wait any longer!