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The Desperate Hours (1955)

Before he was Rick in Casablanca or Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart was a baddie — in fact, after signing his first contract with Warner Brothers in 1936 (his break came playing a killer in The Petrified Forest), Bogie burned through a couple of dozen movies over the next few years, normally being typecast as a gangster, hoodlum, murderer, and even a Mexican bandito on one occasion. It took John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) to cement Bogart's tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold persona, after which the actor enjoyed a variety of roles, right up to playing opposite a young Audrey Hepburn in Billy Wilder's sweet romantic comedy Sabrina (1954). But just two years before his death, Bogart put on his black hat one last time in William Wyler's The Desperate Hours, proving he still had the moxie to pistol-whip anyone who would dare to crack wise. Adapted by Joseph Hayes (from his novel and Broadway play), Bogie stars as Glenn Griffin, an escaped con who's on the run with two accomplices, returning to Indianapolis where he's planning to pick up a delivery of cash from his girlfriend. But Glenn, his younger brother Hal (Dewey Martin), and Kobish (Robert Middleton) have to lay low, which leads Glenn to select a home in a quiet suburb. Barging in on Eleanor Hilliard (Martha Scott), who is home alone, the gang holds her at gunpoint until the remainder of the family returns later in the day — Dan Hilliard (Fredric March), daughter Cindy (Mary Murphy), and son Ralphie (Richard Eyer). Glenn talks a tough patter, but he makes it clear all he wants is for everyone to stay calm until midnight, when he and his boys plan to split. But when Plan A doesn't work out, it appears the crew will have to stay a day or two longer, leading to their holding young Ralphie hostage while the rest of the family goes about their daily business — and presumably will be too afraid to call the police. A taut, economical thriller that mostly takes place in one location, The Desperate Hours was a somewhat unusual project for director William Wyler, who specialized in literary adaptations (and would direct Ben-Hur a few years after this project). However, it provides him the perfect opportunity to establish his skills within a limited space. Shot in black-and-white VistaVision, the film offers a series of carefully constructed compositions, in terms of light and shadow as well as foreground/background juxtapositions. Utilizing deep-focus lenses (pioneered by cinematographer Gregg Toland on previous Wyler films), Wyler prevents the talky picture from looking flat, and he even captures six people on two different levels of the house in one striking shot. While the story originally called for a younger man to play Glenn Griffin (Paul Newman starred in the Broadway production), Bogie is note-perfect with his signature sneer and lisp, alternately barking orders and talking sense with his terrified captors. Frederic March is likewise compelling as family patriarch Dan Hilliard — his is a portrait of fear compounded by duty, and over the course of three days we witness his transition from relying on his protective instincts to succumbing to his overwhelming need to take action against the men who have invaded his home. Trivia buffs note that the house itself was later seen on TV — it's the same exterior that was used for the Cleaver homestead in "Leave it to Beaver." Paramount's DVD release features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Keep-case.

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