The Desperate Hours (1955)

The Desperate Hours (1955) is a home invasion film noir, by William Wyler, and starring Humphrey Bogart as a criminal on the run, terrorising suburban America from within.

Suburban noir can only mean one thing as far as classic film noir is concerned: home invasion. 

Not that the idea was new for the 1950s. Humphrey Bogart had played out the home invasion trope before, and most successfully, with The Petrified Forest (1936). Bogart is said to have commented that his character in The Desperate Hours was in a manner of speaking, his character in that production (Duke Mantee) grown up. 

The home is still central to film noir, at any stage in its evolution. On one level classic film noir is always discussing the family unit.  The home may sometimes be suggestive for reasons of contrast, as the home contrasts the streets, and everything that happens there, including crime and loose-behaviour of any sort. 

The home also contrasts with poverty, certainly by the 1950s. In 1940s film noir, there are certainly no shortage of crummy apartments in film noir, as if its habitués were struggling out of the 1930s, through the war period and into that very thing we all came here to discuss: The American Dream.

American Dream Home in later period film noir The Desperate Hours (1955)

In the 1950s we see the domestic regimen in film noir on a more regular basis. Film noir pushes against the furniture and more dangerous still, film noir was also set to give birth to the culture of the teenager, and all the jazz and rebellion that that would bring.

The first immediate and familiar trope in The Desperate Hours is the crime broadcast over the domestic radio, with relevant plot points.

We also learn that home invasion noir is always made more promising, versatile even, if your set has a balcony area. 

William Wyler did not make a lot of film noir but Humphrey Bogart did. And incredibly only one more film and it is a noir also after this, almost his very last work in one of the most legendary and lived of Hollywood careers. 

The Desperate Hours (1955) not work hard at mixing things up, nor does it even seek to mix up the home invasion genre with anything rise at all. It isn't entirely claustrophobic either, and thought did go into the set, which is even yet somewhat flat and could have been created more imaginatively to whip up a better movie.

Married life is a prison, even in home invasion film noir - The Desperate Hours (1955)

The Desperate Hours does from moment to moment stray from suburbia. There is an interesting tangent story featuring the local trash collecting man, and The Desperate Hours is long enough a picture to indulge in the local economics of how this old boy's business worked back in these heady days.

This set of scenes. Death of  Trashman is a vignette and a moment in time, and is the only time the movie strays far from the house, and it is to the local trash heap to see where the waste goes, and in normally a merry and sanitary fashion.

Get your teeth into some later period film noir with The Desperate Hours (1955)

Suburbia maybe never looked so good, so real, even in black and white. In fact this is a troubling sign for the entirety of the classic film noir canon. Towards the end of the cycle, when movie makers strive for realism, the fantasy element of film noir dissipates, and the effect of noir is minimised.

The Desperate Hours (1955) is one of these attempts at the super-real in 1950s cinema. The production team attempted to master this effect with location shooting, and the use of real addresses and actual roads and routes, mapped out and filmed for real.

Mary Murphy in The Desperate Hours (1955)

Robert Middleton in The Desperate Hours (1955)

No amount of VistaVision is going to make your movie real however. A film noir like The Desperate Hours is competing however with colour movies, which because of their lack of the symbolic and well-known dark and light tones of film noir, do suggest a greater realism. Nothing is real however, and attempting a realistic picture, while relying on stereotypes - - as crime films often must - - is going to create a clash of realism and fantasy.

The Desperate Hours (1955)

In a good home invasion film noir, you'd always be looking for a classy set. A classy set to get some neat angles, and levels are the key here. The Desperate Hours has an upstairs and downstairs level, and of course an open balcony; and there is a slightly lower level as the family home's living area is down one wide step from the hall and stairs, making for some fine photography.

The story of The Desperate Hours is a determined set of moments, gritting its teeth, and trying to pull everything it can by way of fear from this one scenario, the home invasion. It reminds us of the old old days, when Humphrey Bogart would hole up in a shack, like in High Sierra, good old High Sierra (1941).

Shacks are few and far between in home invasion film noir, however. The home being perhaps suggestively the realm of women, there is something else at stake here, in the home becoming the sudden locus of  

The very thought of how far film noir has come between that shack with Ida Lupino in High Sierra and this family home in The Desperate Hours, is a sign of many different kinds of sophistications in American life, between 1945 and 1955.

Exploiting the family in home invasion film noir The Desperate Hours (1955)

The family is similarly exploited, it can be observed, in similar home invasion noirs Storm Fear (1955) and Cry Terror! (1958) and in both pictures we will see children with guns held to their heads. The power to shock? Perhaps. It may also be a feature that is now really seen as being in poor taste.

The cynicism is more sophisticated, and so is the violence, and both are film noir, especially the cynicism. That very cynicism which places a gun to a child's head, quite merrily in the name of nor, in The Desperate Hours. Things became blacker and blacker, and more serious and less fantastic, and worst of all new threats such as home invasion were being made real, as fast as the suburbs and freeways were being built. What a Land it was!

Upstairs and downstairs, the dramatic set of The Desperate Hours (1955)

Director William Wyler is regarded as one of the most distinguished and versatile filmmakers of the Golden Age, or the Classical Hollywood period, however you may define these eras. He made films during the silent era as well as the sound era, and in both black-and-white and technicolor film. Although an émigré from Germany, Wyler moved in 1921, before the general exodus of the Nazi age began. As such he may have missed out fully on the thrills and styles of German expressionism, which came to inform the classic film noir style.

The Desperate Hours (1955) on Wikipedia


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