The frighteningly real experience of William Wyler’s noir-thriller, The Desperate Hours, pins a family with everything to lose against a trio of runaway felons with nothing to lose. The elongated hostage situation is a boiler of nervous energy and the longer the situation gets extended, the less nerve the characters get, making for a volatile situation. It’s an extremely tight narrative structure, a streamline of intensity from the opening moments to the tragic conclusion.
More importantly, the dueling leads of legendary actor Frederic March as the family’s patriarch having to out-smart Humphrey Bogart’s curmudgeon criminal intellect is what draws the tension. March acts every moment as life-or-death, making it feel that way. His eyes are shot with terror and his delivery racing with adrenaline. Compared to Bogart who paints a picture of a man under control, but under the surface knows this charade is quickly coming to an end. It’s either that or he’s got the worst luck in the world and Bogart adds those layers in the performance. The rest of the cast is rather unremarkable, but don’t ruin the shared tension.
Wyler takes a simple screenplay that could have easily been done on a stage and makes it cinematic. For example, cinematographer Lee Garmes has high contrast shots to paint these characters and shadows are used to great effect. The film has a distinct visual style and the tone, while not foreign to noir fans, doesn’t have a uniquely dark presence with the direct consequences of putting his family’s life at risk. There’s typical sacrificial hero tropes within the hostage writing, but March at the very least elevates that material.
Personally speaking, I could watch Frederic March act for hours on end making The Desperate Hours worth it, and adding an all-time favorite in Bogart playing his trademark heavy is hard to pass up. The Intellectual curiosity of both actors shows its face in roles that are one-track and simple, remarkable to pull out this level of character performance.