If you don’t know who William Wyler is, then cinema isn’t your passion. He is an artist, a captivating storyteller and such a good example against the auteur theory that I’m sure even Godard can agree with.
But I won’t attempt to delve deeper into Wyler’s career. That is too great a task, which will require years of research and perhaps the subject of a dissertation or two. I will only zoom in on one film directed by this master at work - The Desperate Hours, a film which caused stirrings of memories familiar and yet never experienced.
The Desperate Hours is the only film pairing, or setting against each other, two Hollywood heavy weights: Frederic March and Humphrey Bogart. And the sparks are for the ages. For those not in the know, Frederic March was a Broadway star as well as a matinee idol, who already had an Oscar (for Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)) in the bag by the time Humphrey Bogart was being pushed around and tried on for size on the Warner Brothers’ lot. But more on that on a later post. I feel Humphrey Bogart needs little introduction, other than to say that his short screen career (20 years) was perhaps richer, enviable and more intense than that of many of his peers.
In 1955 they were both veterans of the screen, wiser, wrinklier and more confident. And that’s where the charm of the whole picture lies. I use the term picture, because it has all the feels and depths of an old medium, rich in style, sentiment as well as action and plenty of suspense. I also always read the word ‘picture’ in Norma Desmond’s voice. And this one is not a small one either! It’s got faces, alright. The handsome, well-aged faces of March and Bogart shine dark and full of passion, anger, heroism and most of all humanity.
Frederic March plays the head of the Hilliard household, living a tranquil life in the suburbs until Bogart’s Glenn Griffin, an escaped convict, chooses his home as a temporary hideaway from the police, taking him, his wife and two children hostages. Griffin operates with his younger brother and another escaped convict, although the latter is merely a stereotype and only used to advance the plot. The main battle is between the Hilliards and the Griffins and is mostly a battle of wits and feelings. From the beginning the younger Griffin is having second thoughts about the life of crime his brother has led him on, when he expresses regret for not being able to have a family and a house in the suburbs like the Hilliards. One of the most memorable quotes from the film comes from the younger Griffin: “Yeah, you taught me everything. Except how to live in a house like this.”
Despite suffering from a rather predictable plot, the film is aided by astonishing close ups of both Bogart and March, impeccably edited and combined with astonishing ensemble compositions. Wyler seems to understand the character in both their faces, accumulated over the years. And he lets them both shine with the weariness of the passing years. Wyler’s collaboration with cinematographer extraordinaire Lee Garmes brings out the best in both – a film noir of both subtle and sublime beauty, equalled only by a superb and insidious darkness.
The Desperate Hours is a film noir which somehow transcends the genre, becoming as much a gangster film as a family melodrama, with some truly suspenseful moments added in for good measure, of which even Hitchcock might be proud.