Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
DVD Rentals: The Desperate Hours (1955)
Old Bogie goes head-to-head with an even older Frederic March in William Wyler's violent-for-its-day, terror-in-a-tiny-town nail biter.
A trio of escaped cons invade Beaver Cleaver's house. Luckily, the Cleavers didn't move in until two years later. It's current occupants, the Hilliards, are as benign an atomic family as the Cleavers, Andersons, and Uncle Tonouse combined.
When Dan Hilliard (March) woke up that fateful morn, the biggest problem facing his life was the prospect of his daughter, Cindy (Mary Murphy) lowering herself by marrying a struggling lawyer (Gig Young). Nine-year-old Ralphie (Richard Eyer) -- too old for dad to kiss him goodbye -- is eager to drop the "ie" from his name. (Do I smell a sickly curtain closer?). Mother Ellie (Martha Scott) dusts all day. They're the type of honest, God-fearing souls that dine in suits and pearls. They would have stayed that way forever were it not for the day their peaceful backlot Paramount existence was upended by a stock Warner Bros. gangster.
Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart) and his brother Hal (Dewey Martin) have just escaped from prison in the company of a brutish oaf called Kobish (Robert Middleton), whose main contributions to the proceedings are bending jailhouse bars, turning roadside mutts into roadkill, and comic relief.
Glenn is a violent, simple-minded gangster with grandiose plans, a role Bogart was more familiar with than his daily bottle of Scotch. (When a reporter asked how he managed to down a fifth a day, Bogart replied, "Very slowly.") Headed by big brother Glenn, the illicit trio randomly select a suburban roost in which to high-tail it from the cops. Ellie is the only one home when the psycho house guests come a knocking and she doesn't offer much resistance. The nicest thing there is to say about Martha Scott's blah performance is that she cowers well.
The remaining family members return from their work and school days, and impish little Ralphie is the first to show signs of resistance. He blasts the not so gentle giant, who earlier got angry and leveled his toy room, for misplacing a favorite airplane. (The tetched-in-the-head bulvan threw it out the window to see if it would fly.) Given his outlandishly wholesome upbringing, it's no wonder 9-year-old Ralphie is ready to bolt. Were it not for the pugnacious tyke's botched escape attempt (he's caught diving from his second story bedroom window), we would have been out of here and hour earlier. One keeps praying that Glenn will make good his first reel promise and kick in Ralphie's teeth.
When Dan finally shows some gumption, he is punished with a gun butt to the back of the head, the bruise for which miraculously appears on his forehead in the next scene. It's the only action flaw in a film marked by bursts of random violence and depravity that no doubt took its toll on 1955 audiences. When Dewey gets run over by a Farciot Edouart process shot, the impact is stronger and more credible than just about anything I've seen come out of ILM.
This was the first VistaVision film shot in black and white. Kobish's primal background movements justify the development of Motion Picture High Fidelity. The famished felon makes a beeline for the liquor cabinet quickly followed by a visit to the kitchen. He gnaws on a drumstick, slobbers down milk, eats from a can, and devours an apple while reading the paper. A man's got to keep up his strength in case the need ever arises to bench press a nine-year-old boy.
Always a sucker for deep focus photography, the VistaVision transfer offered miles of space for the eyes to explore. God of lumens, Lee Garmes, isn't content to simply capture action in light and shadow. His is a softly-lit symphony of darkness and bright. a grayscale rainbow of astonishing texture and depth. It's not just the manner in which he lights the Hilliards and their transient captors. Inside the house, the low angle, deep focus shots add an extra touch of menace and as such, the two-story Tudor deserves character billing.
Why should we care about these people? I never quite understood the kick in watching randomly chosen innocents being used and brutalized. We don't know enough about the Hilliards to question, let alone hate them, and an anonymous home front built on pious complacency will never win me over. Knowledge informs feeling and I never once fretted over the characters’ fates.
Perhaps the success of a picture like this hinges on just how bad the bad guys are. In that department, the film has its rewards. Bogie plays Mad Dog Earl on meth, a debased monster who will stop at nothing to collect the loot and, of course, enact revenge against the cop that brought him down (the normally trusty Arthur Kennedy wasted as a Central Casting flat-foot). Had Dan not removed the bullets from the pistol he cleverly positioned for Glenn to find, it's certain the homicidal maniac would have added a few extra button holes to Ralphie's shirt while the kid was in it.
What a remarkable supporting cast! Whit Bissell hangs up his stethoscope long enough to save the day as a brave FBI agent overriding Sheriff Ray Collins' orders. (He slips Dan a rod.) Long time character actor Walter Baldwin is the only civilian to take a bullet. Upright Dan affects a drunken, lecherous demeanor in hopes of skedaddling Ralphie's teacher (Beverly Garland in pristine form) to safety. A frightened Joe Flynn, eyes bugging through tortoiseshell frames, plays a hijacked motorist. Robert Aldrich regular Bert Freed and Bedrock's favorite son, Alan Reed, portray a couple of cops. Look closely for a last minute appearance by enduring Hollywood neighbor-lady, Ann Doran. And who better than Burt Mustin, Beaver's lovable pal Gus, to have a brief speaking role in a film seemingly set in Mayfield?
On the strength of Andrew Sarris’ basement ranking in The American Cinema, I've yet to dip into the Wyler's Bette Davis trilogy (Jezebel, The Letter, The Little Foxes). His later period blockbusters (The Big Country, Ben-Hur, Funny Girl) never did it for me. You can't say that I didn't give them a fair shake: I've seen 35mm dye transfer prints of all three.
And with mucho apologies for the dump I am about to deposit on David Elliott's altar of cinema, Roman Holiday is an inferior remake of It Happened One Night, with added location footage. Audrey is lovely, but Wyler never was much for comedy and Greg Peck is such a lumbering stiff that it's hard to see why the Princess never wises up and hops a permanent ride on Eddie Albert's back seat.
Marty was right about The Heiress and to my delight, several of Wyler's ‘30’s pictures have surfaced on TCM over the years. Never a champion of morality on film, I am surprised how much I enjoyed The Desperate Hours as well as another upright Wyler classic that should make me quake, Friendly Persuasion. Orson Welles called Wyler the great producer among directors. Welles also said that it's possible to have a long career in Hollywood and be a total mediocrity. Wyler enjoyed both.
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