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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: "The Desperate Hours"

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#1 of 13 OFFLINE   StuartGalbraith



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Posted June 06 2003 - 05:58 PM

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DVD Review – The Desperate Hours
Producer and Director, William Wyler; Screenplay, Joseph Hayes, based on his novel and play; Director of Photography, Lee Garmes; Art Director, J. McMillan Johnson; Editor, Robert Swink; Music, Gail Kubik.
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Fredric March, Arthur Kennedy, Martha Scott, Dewey Martin, Gig Young, Mary Murphy, Richard Eyer, Robert Middleton, Alan Reed, Ray Collins, Whit Bissell, Joe Flynn, Beverly Garland, Burt Mustin.
A Paramount Pictures Production. A Paramount Pictures Release. Black and white. VistaVision. 112 minutes. No MPAA Rating. Released October 5, 1955.

DVD: Released by Paramount Home Video / Street Date June 10, 2003 / SRP $19.99
1.77:1 / 16:9 anamorphic
Dolby Digital Mono.
Special Features: None.

Reviewed by Stuart Galbraith IV

A taut domestic thriller with an impressive pedigree, William Wyler's The Desperate Hours is remembered as Humphrey Bogart's last tough guy role, a part that in some ways brought his career full circle. Despite some minor casting problems and a dated '50s sensibility, the picture holds up remarkably well thanks to several very good performances and an extra measure of care accorded to what was obviously regarded as a prestige production.

The story is simple. Three hardened criminals – Glenn Griffin (Bogart), kid brother Hal (Dewey Martin) and sadistic brute Kobish (Robert Middleton) – escape from jail and hide out in a typical house in the suburbs. (Typical, indeed – the very same backlot home would soon be occupied by Beaver Cleaver and family.) Intending to hide out there until Griffin's girl can show up with getaway money, the trio terrorize an All-American family: Gray Flannel Suit-wearing Hilliard (Fredric March), his wife (Martha Scott), young adult daughter (Mary Murphy) and young son (Richard Eyer).

The Desperate Hours is, partly, a “what would you do?” movie. As tensions rise, Hilliard goes from acquiescing to the escaped cons' demands to passively then actively scheming for a way out. Bogart's Griffin always seem to think one step ahead of Hilliard, and no one in the family (except the kid, acting on boyish impulsiveness) can make a move without risking everyone's life. Indeed, the convicts have it so good they can send Hilliard out to fetch booze and newspapers; they know full well he isn't going to risk his family by going to the police.

To this end the picture proceeds in a believable and logical fashion, and it's this verisimilitude that makes the film eminently watchable. Wyler and writer Joseph Hayes also keeps things moving by frequently showing the audience simultaneous action. Art Director J. McMillan Johnson built a single set to reflect the two floors of the Hilliard home, and Wyler often stages bits of business on both floors (and the staircase in between) at once.

The film also works as a kind of ultimate suburban nightmare – the home invasion. The way-over-the-top remake is certainly more brutal, but audiences of the 1950s were shocked enough at the very idea of criminals wreaking terror deep inside suburbia, as if moving out of the city would insulate the growing middle class. The script goes to great length to show how uncouth these hoodlums are: they are bemused by plates and silverware (as if such utensils didn't exist in prison), knock furniture over, put their cigarettes out on the nice, clean carpeting, and in general exhibit both envy and contempt for such wholesome living.

In 1955, Fredric March was most familiar to movie audiences as the similar patriarchal figure in Wyler's acclaimed and popular The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). He's fine as the Everyman determined to protect his family. Bogart was nearly twice as old as the actor who originated the part on Broadway – Paul Newman – but Bogie's age brings a hard edge and a kind of criminal wisdom to the part, though it's hard to accept that he and Dewey Martin could ever be related, let alone brothers. For the film anyway, Bogart's age is less of a concern than that of 42-year-old Gig Young, an otherwise fine actor but hard to accept as the boyfriend of the Hilliard's young daughter.

Richard Eyer, later the Genie in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), plays the kind of child only Hollywood could imagine. He's fine, he rarely speaks the way real kids do. Familiar character actors populate the film, including an uncredited Beverly Garland as Eyer's teacher, Joe Flynn as a kidnap victim, and Ray Collins and Whit Bissell as lawmen.

How is the Transfer?
Shot in VistaVision, the DVD of The Desperate Hours is enhanced for widescreen televisions with a 1.77:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is generally quite good, though not as sharp as other VistaVision titles in which the original horizontal negative was accessed, such as Warner’s razor-sharp DVD of North by Northwest. The mono sound is a bit tinny at times, but generally acceptable.

Special Features

Parting Thoughts
Humphrey Bogart is best remembered as a Warner Bros. actor. It was there he made The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), among others. He spent the last third of his career as an independent, and for every African Queen (1951) there was a Sirroco (1951) or a Battle Circus (1953). But there were a fair share of gems, and The Desperate Hours ranks fairly high, offering fans of the actor a mature, confident performance that by itself makes the film worth a look.

#2 of 13 OFFLINE   Robert Crawford

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Posted June 06 2003 - 10:13 PM

Stuart, Another great review, I just watched my dvd yesterday and have always loved this film. It's kind of ironic that Wyler/Bogart would reteam again almost 20 years after another Wyler/Bogart film "Dead End" which was one of Bogart's best roles early in his career as another gangster hiding out from the law. Crawdaddy

#3 of 13 OFFLINE   oscar_merkx


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Posted June 06 2003 - 10:39 PM

any Bogart & Wyler team up is worth a blind purchase


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#4 of 13 OFFLINE   Gordon McMurphy

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Posted June 06 2003 - 11:27 PM

Excellent. Thanks, Stuart. Posted Image

Black and white VistaVision films have always puzzled me, as with such a clear, sharp system, you would have thought that in would have been a colour-only system, but the results on films like this and... what's that other film... The Tin Star, is it(?) were great.

Nice companion piece to the Sinatra film, Suddenly!.

Cheers. Posted Image


#5 of 13 OFFLINE   Jeff_HR



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Posted June 08 2003 - 04:48 AM

Well I can retire my old LD when my copy arrives. Sorry to hear that the transfer was not as sharp as possible.
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#6 of 13 OFFLINE   Herb Kane

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Posted June 16 2003 - 06:49 AM

Jeff... I finally watched this last night on a Sharp 9000 with a Stewart 96" Firehawk and thought the transfer was outstanding and very sharp. I noticed slight "light shimmerings" on a few occasions but other than that, it was very impressive. The mono sound I though was also solid with no hiss whatsoever. For fans of classics, particularly crime classics, Bogies and film noir, this is a must have. Great film. Thanks Paramount. Herb.
My Top 25 Noirs:

25. 711 Ocean Drive (1950), 24. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), 23. Desperate (1947), 22. Pushover (1954), 21. The Blue Dahlia (1946), 20. The File on Thelma Jordon (1949), 19. He Ran All the Way (1951), 18. The Asphalt Jungle (1950), 17. The Killing (1956), 16. I Walk Alone (1948),...

#7 of 13 OFFLINE   Gary Miller

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Posted June 20 2003 - 01:31 PM

Thanks for another perceptive review Stuart. It made not have been a great film, but a very well crafted one...so much better then the self-indulgent, gimmicky, mechanical crappola that passes for suspense in the new millennium. I saw this for the first time on TV as a kid in the 60's (NBC's "Saturday Night at the Movies", I think) but never imagined I would ever see this in a widescreen format. While not perfect,the PQ was as good as I could have hoped for. I'm sad to say that Martha Scott passed away less then a month ago.

#8 of 13 OFFLINE   David Von Pein

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Posted June 20 2003 - 06:27 PM

Ditto what Gary Miller said! Posted Image

This is a fine film (IMO).

Has anyone else noticed that the exterior of the Leave It To Beaver house is used in The Desperate Hours (two years before Beaver's series began)?

Kind of odd, I thought, considering Beaver's home is @ Universal, and Desperate Hours is a Paramount release. (However, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is a Paramount film that was shot @ Universal as well. So I guess it's common for those studios to team up on occasion.)

The famous Cleaver abode has been utilized in other films as well, such as 1964's Send Me No Flowers.

Now .... If we could only get two other great Fredric March films on DVD: 1948's An Act Of Murder and 1954's Executive Suite.

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#9 of 13 OFFLINE   Robert Crawford

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Posted June 20 2003 - 08:17 PM

Also, Warner is promoting "Executive Suite" as one of the films to vote on in that promotion with AOL on which films that fans want released on dvd in January, 2004. Even if it's not among the five films chosen, the films not chosen in the fan poll will be released later in 2004. Crawdaddy

#10 of 13 OFFLINE   David Von Pein

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Posted June 21 2003 - 04:52 PM

Thank you, Robert C., for the data/info.

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#11 of 13 OFFLINE   David Von Pein

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Posted July 11 2003 - 04:34 PM

Can someone who has the DVD of The Desperate Hours confirm the aspect ratio?

On-line e-tailers display no less than three different ARs for the film .... Amazon is misleading purchasers to the tune of a 2.35:1 ratio (which is surely inaccurate); DVD Empire shows 1.85:1; while Best Buy favors the 1.78:1 image shape.

Also: Anybody know whether this picture was Paramount's first Widescreen effort? Had to have been one of their first five WS motion pictures I would surmise.

What was the first Widescreen film ever done BTW?

#12 of 13 OFFLINE   Bill Burns

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Posted July 11 2003 - 06:01 PM

I'd like to know if it was mastered from 35/8 (horizontal VistaVision original) or 35/4 (vertical reduction). There was quite a bit of talk about this, regarding Paramount, when To Catch a Thief was released. If the eight perforation large format negative survives for The Desperate Hours, knowing whether it was used would give me a good sense of how well the DVD has turned out, given Paramount's top-notch transfer and compression record -- I haven't seen it yet, and of course Stuart says it isn't all that sharp, but NxNW owes its clarity to a complete digital make-over by Lowry Digital (LDI), so that comparison may not be the best. A comparison with Vertigo (non-anamorphic) or perhaps best of all with High Society (anamorphic) for clarity would be great. The Desperate Hours is, of course, B&W, however, and I've never seen a B&W VistaVision film outside of television ... still, issues of clarity might be best judged against the likes of these color productions (which I believe were both sourced from 35/8, but High Society frankly looks somewhere in between Vertigo and what I'd assume to be 35/4; it may have multiple sources, or it may simply be an outstanding reduction, but my gut says "mostly" 35/8; it could also be placed alongside Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but I have yet to see that disc).

Anyway, the simple question for TDH: 35/8 or 35/4? Posted Image I remain curious as to the source, and if it's 35/4, how well resolved detail and overall grain structure/look resemble the color VistaVision films on disc.

To answer David's question: "widescreen" is a tricky term. Large format widescreen B&W experiments date back at least to the early 30's (1930's The Bat Whispers is on disc in both its 35mm and 65mm versions, with the latter offered around 2:1, and presumably non-anamorphic, though I haven't seen it; Fox has said that another large format 1930 production, The Big Trail, needs restoration in its large format edition -- a restoration I very much hope takes place soon; I'm an eager customer for the film in this version -- so their current DVD offers only the simultaneously shot 35mm edition). B&W films with a gauge wider than 35mm and a projection aperture wider than 1.37:1 date back to the very beginning of motion pictures in the 1890's (according to multiple sources, including Robert Harris and TWM -- see the link below). But for the earliest true "widescreen" film on DVD, you'd probably want to look at Image's The Bat Whispers, which they've released for Milestone Video (under the Milestone Collection banner).

For this and other early widescreen info:


And for more on The Bat Whispers, here are front and back cover scans at DVDEmpire:

Front Cover:
The Bat Whispers

Back Cover:
The Bat Whispers

“That line was screwy.”

- Outtake
Warner Bros.' Breakdowns of 1938

#13 of 13 OFFLINE   David Von Pein

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Posted July 11 2003 - 07:52 PM

Wow! That's some impressive data, Sir Burns. Thank you. What about that "official" "Desperate Hours" ratio though?

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