Blu-ray Release: October 17, 2023
Audio: English LPCM 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 112:33
Director: William Wyler
Three escaped cons, led by the ruthless Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart), force their way into a suburban home, intending to hide out while they await the arrival of an all-important package. But what should have been an overnight stay extends into a protracted hostage situation, pitting Glenn against the embattled family patriarch, Daniel Hilliard (Frederic March) - a man with everything to lose. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours (1955) was Humphrey Bogart’s second to last film, produced about a year before Mark Robson’s The Harder They Fall (1956). It wasn’t necessarily a throwback for Bogart, who never stopped appearing in gritty crime films, but still recalled his noir era work, especially his star-making feature, Archie Mayo’s The Petrified Forest (1936). Both are bottle-thrillers based on stage plays about criminals forced to take innocent people hostage that utilizes their limited locations and small casts to bolster the claustrophobia. The Desperate Hours was actually adapted from Joseph Hayes’ book and play, and is loosely based on actual events (edit: according to some of the extras on this disc, The Desperate Hours play began production after filming, but before the movie version was released), while Petrified Forest was purely fictional, aside from Bogart getting the role in part because he resembled John Dillinger, whose criminal escapades had only come to a bloody end a couple of years prior.
The Desperate Hours wasn’t initially designed as some kind of Petrified Forest follow-up (edit: again, according to the extras on this disc, Bogart was well aware of them), but it is still interesting to compare the two films. Bogart’s wearier performances, for instance, accounts for his advanced age and experience playing dark characters. The main differences, however, are tied to the locations. Petrified Forest takes place in the dying vestiges of the American West, where a man could exchange safety for freedom, and The Desperate Hours is set in the blossoming midwestern suburbs of the post-war era, where security comes at the cost of conformity (the main set is so emblematically suburban that it was reportedly reused for the later seasons of Leave it to Beaver). Despite the breadth of difference, a number of other socio-economic themes are largely unchanged and class warfare has remained a central part of hostage and home invasion movies, along with the concept of patriarchal manhood, which lies at the center of The Desperate Hours and would be greatly expanded in something like Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971).
Speaking of Straw Dogs, The Desperate Hours was made when the Motion Picture Production Code was still enforced, so censorship prevented the filmmakers from engaging in the depths of depravity seen in following decades’ hostage and home invasion movies (eagle-eyed viewers may notice that the married couple sleeps in separate, adjoining beds). They do manage to wring a lot of suspense out of the threat of sexual assault and a couple of bloodless, yet gruesome deaths, but, like any good hostage story, the most intense drama is derived from the change in dynamics between the characters. Will the criminals make good on their threats? Will the hapless hostages be able to alert the authorities without alerting the criminals? Will the criminals turn on each other as circumstances spiral out of their control? The Desperate Hours isn’t exactly interested in subverting established storytelling techniques, so the answers to these questions aren’t particularly surprising, but Wyler’s crisp direction, Hayes and Jay Dratler’s taut script, and stellar performances from Bogart and Fredric March, in particular, ensure the appropriate level of intensity, right up to the nail-biting climax.
Wyler was a stalwart and versatile Hollywood heavyweight with a career spanning back to the silent era. He made movies with David Nevin, Laurence Olivier, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, and Kirk Douglas, was nominated for 12 Best Director Oscars, and won three times. He and Bogart initially teamed-up on Dead End, which was released in 1937, less than a year after The Petrified Forest, then made Jezebel in 1938 with Bogart’s co-star Bette Davis, the first of several collaborations with the actress (who he also married). Desperate Hours was made amidst some of his most enduring and celebrated films – one year after the breezy, black & white romantic comedy Roman Holiday (1963), one year before his first Technicolor epic, The Big Country (1958), and two years before his Technicolor epic to end all Technicolor epics, Ben-Hur (1959). It’s not a forgotten classic, but, in that company, a small-scale dramatic thriller like The Desperate Hours was somewhat lost in the shuffle. It was remade by Michael Cimino in 1990, starring Mickey Rourke, Anthony Hopkins, and Mimi Rogers.
Desperate Hours was the first black & white film to be shot using the VistaVision process, which was designed for its scope and revolution, but also known for its color quality. Like most of Bogart’s work, it was readily available on VHS via Paramount. Stateside, the only DVD option was a barebones anamorphic disc, also from Paramount. The first Blu-ray was part of Australian company Via Vision’s Essential Noir Collection in 2022. Without having access to that disc, I can all but guarantee that Arrow’s disc is an upgrade, because it features a brand new restoration based on a 6K scan of the original VistaVision negatives. Given that level of detail, a 4K UHD would have been ideal, but I imagine that Desperate Hours doesn’t sell as well as Tremors or Carlito’s Way. Anyway, this 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is pretty spectacular, considering the film’s age. The higher resolution format supports some really nice detail and texture, which are especially impressive throughout the backgrounds. Grain texture is fine and mostly uniform, and there are few notable print damage artifacts.
Desperate Hours is presented in uncompressed 1.0 and its original mono sound. The mix is simple and almost entirely dialogue-driven, though this isn’t surprising for a movie based on stage play. The tracks show their age with a bit of muffling and a few dips in volume throughout, which is probably the result of noise-reduction software cutting back the buzz and similar damage. Important effects, like gunfire, are plenty loud when it counts. The intense score was composed by Gail Kubik and an uncredited Daniele Amfitheatrof. The music blares appropriately over the opening credits, but is otherwise sparingly used to underline the emotions of select scenes.
Commentary with Daniel Kremer – The filmmaker, author, and archivist explores the technical aspects of VistaVision, William Wyler’s life, visual trademarks, and body of work, Bogart’s growth as an actor over the decades (apparently, the actor did see the character as an older version of his Petrified Forest character), the wider careers of the rest of cast & crew, and the stage play.
Trouble in Suburbia (38:51, HD) – An interview/pseudo-scene-specific commentary with José Arroyo, in which the Associate Professor in Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick discusses Wyler’s stylistic choices, his five film contract with Paramount Pictures (including The Heiress , Detective Story , Carrie , Roman Holiday, and The Desperate Hours), themes of suburbia, sexuality, gender, and class in The Desperate Hours, casting and characters, the play, the VistaVision process, and the film as a possible metaphor for the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The Lonely Man (14:54, HD) – Eloise Ross, the co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque, looks back on the end of Bogart’s career and performance in The Desperate Hours, his interactions with the rest of the cast, the film’s sometimes ironic use of noir clichés, the ways newspapers and radio bulletins fulfill an expositional role, the history of home invasion films, and comparisons to The Petrified Forest.
Scaled Down and Ratcheted Up (11:47, HD) – A 2023 audio interview with William Wyler’s daughter Catherine, who wraps things up with her point-of-view as a child visiting the set and memories of meeting her father’s industry friends.
Lobby card gallery
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