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Monday, February 24, 2014

THE DESPERATE HOURS (1955)

Going back at least to 1912 and the Gish sisters debut in D. W. Griffith’s AN UNSEEN ENEMY, the hostage drama is a perennial dramatic construct that’s both worked to death and improbably sturdy. So, it’s only half a surprise to find this mid-‘50s suburban iteration holding up as well as it does. And with the old story this well handled, you can get a charge on the film's sheer craftsmanship. Vet helmer William Wyler, with lenser Lee Garmes, goes for tremendous depth-of-field focus, multi-layering action inside the house in a manner that suggests 3-D, often putting all his principles in a single composition that takes in different playing spaces so we identify with the family as a unit. It makes them a believable force against the three violent escaped prisoners holding them hostage and helps us buy into some of the less convincing plot manipulations. Humphrey Bogart obviously wanted another go at his Duke Mantee characterization from PETRIFIED FOREST/’36. (He’d just redone it on t.v.) Here, in his penultimate film, he’s less stagy, less stylized and just plain nastier than he was twenty years ago. Against this, Fredric March’s family guy has to be both terrified father and strong defender. Wyler apparently wore him down with as many as fifty takes to get what he needed. It certainly did the trick.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: This film is often referred to as a play adaptation, but not exactly. Joseph Hayes wrote the fact-inspired story as a novel, as a film script and as a play. The film was actually shot before the play opened, then contractually held back until the stage version (with Paul Newman & Karl Malden in the Bogie & March spots) completed its B’way run.

DOUBLE-BILL: Check out Bogart’s breakout perf in PETRIFIED FOREST. Pretty stagy, no? The acting gem in that film is a young & pretty, totally unaffected Bette Davis.

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