USA Today - 08/04/1989
"...Compelling in its portrayal of police methodology; March and Bogart are at their peak..."
Director William Wyler's tense crime drama is set in a quiet midwestern town. In the middle of a summer's day, three escaped convicts--Glen (Humphrey Bogart), his brother Hal (Dewey Martin), and the threatening Sam (Robert Middleton)--blunder into a suburban home. There they confront Eleanor Hilliard (Martha Scott). Soon the rest of Eleanor's family return--first her accountant husband, Dan (Fredric March), and daughter, Cindy (Mary Murphy), then her young son, Ralphie (Richard Eyer). To the family's horror, the convicts decide to stay in their home until Glen's girl arrives with help. The police, led by Deputy Bard (Arthur Kennedy), have lost the trail of the convicts. Everyone waits: the convicts for help, the Hilliards for the convicts to leave, and the police for them to reappear. Then Glen's girl runs into trouble.
Using his trademark long takes and claustrophobically confining most of the action to the beleaguered Hilliards's home, Wyler and veteran director of photography Lee Garmes create an atmosphere of tension. At first it seems the Hilliards will be rescued if the police discover the whereabouts of the convicts. Then it becomes clear that things will get much worse for the family if the police do arrive.
Escaped convicts hold a family hostage in this classic nail-biter adapted from the novel and Broadway play by Joseph Hayes, which were inspired by an actual case. The intruders' brutish behavior brings out Dad's courageous side.
Early in 1954, bids for the movie rights for Joseph Hayes's crime novel THE DESPERATE HOURS were being made even before it was published. At the same time, Hayes was being asked to turn it into a play. When Paramount acquired the screen rights (for $50,000) for director William Wyler, the agreement had an unusual clause that called for the movie to be made before the play was produced on Broadway but then for the play's run to be completed before the movie was released. Shooting on the movie was completed by the end of 1954, and the play opened the next January--with Karl Malden in the Fredric March role and 29-year-old Paul Newman in Humphrey Bogart's role. Initially a smash hit on Broadway that was expected to run for months, the play stalled when an intense midsummer heat wave hit New York, and it closed on August 13. Paramount and Wyler, taken by surprise, brought the movie premiere forward and it opened on October 5, 1955.
Initially, director Wyler wanted a younger actor, such as Marlon Brando or James Dean, to play Glen. Then he discovered that Humphrey Bogart was interested--when Paramount had acquired the rights to the novel they outbid Bogart's production company, Santana--and Wyler decided to make the gangster middle-aged and offered Bogart the part.
Fredric March worked with Wyler twice--on THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1946, and THE DESPERATE HOURS. Many years later, March had this to say (in the magazine American Film, issue #4, 1976) about Wyler's methods: "It's easier to know that Wyler is Hollywood's finest director of actors than it is to explain it. He doesn't articulate his criticism. But you sense his dissatisfaction. He seems to know when there's more to be gotten than you're giving. And he's relentless until he's got it. The released print is the deferred proof."
THE DESPERATE HOURS was the second movie on which director Wyler and veteran photographer Lee Garmes worked together; in 1951 they collaborated on another crime thriller, DECTECTIVE STORY. They decided to shoot THE DESPERATE HOURS in black and white and VistaVision (Paramount's very high definition answer to Twentieth-Century Fox's Cinemascope).