Saturday, February 07, 2004

The Desperate Hours

* * * ¼ (our of four)
Seen 3 February 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Humphrey Bogart: The Stuff THat Dreams Are Made Of)

This is a quality siege movie. It offers an enclosed location, a trio of murderous escaped cons, and an average suburban family for them to terrorize. Humphrey Bogart is at his intense, grimy best as the alpha villain and Fredric March is nearly his equal as the frightened but resourceful father, and they are ably supported by the rest of the cast, especially Martha Scott as the mother and Dewey Martin as Bogart's younger, less vicious brother.

You can spot that this film is the direct descendant of a stage play (it was also a novel; Joseph Hayes is credited with writing all three versions); most of the action takes place in one space, containing the living room, kitchen, a staircase and a hallway overlooking the rest. Indeed, where the film starts to run into trouble is when it leaves that area; as soon as Glenn Griffin (Bogart) allows Dan Hilliard (March) or his daughter out of his sight, having them not call the police or tell someone about the hostage situation starts to seem like an idiot plot, padding the movie's running time out. It's a small negative, though, as director William Wyler keeps the tension cranked high enough to make this acceptable, because the hostages are all believably afraid for their lives and the lives of their family. The action scenes are well-mounted; indeed, they're some of the best and most suspenseful I've seen from this period.

One thing the movie adds that a stage play can't is the exterior shots. It's unnerving to think that this can be going on in a familiar, safe-looking neighborhood, with kids playing in the street and everyone completely unaware of what sort of drama is unfolding inside this house. There's a real potency to the scenes where the characters in the middle of a tense standoff must interact with those just going about their lives in the outside world, which is something instantly relatable; even if we've never been held at gunpoint, we've all been in trivial situations and wanted to scream about something much more important instead. And that's what elevates The Desperate Hours above most siege movies; we may not be able to relate to the heroics, but we can relate to the fear that something will get out and ruin everything.

No comments: