Desperate Hours, The (1956): Wyler Directs Bogart’s Last Film, Starring Fredric March

Based on the novel and play by Joseph Hayes, The Desperate Hours is a well-acted and well-directed genre film, which can be described as “the family-in peril” thriller.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

The Desperate Hours

The Desperate Hours poster

This film was the next to last screen role of Humphrey Bogart, who might have been too old (he was 55) to play it compellingly; Bogart died in January 1957 of cancer.

The tale centers on three escaped convicts, headed by Glenn Griffin (played by Bogart), and including Robert Middleton and Dewey Martin, who seek a hideout until they can reach their contacts.

They “choose” the suburban home of the prosperous Dan Hilliard (Fredric March) and his family.

The cynical, brutal Griffin, knowing he can manipulate the family into cooperating with him, orders Hilliard, his wife (Martha Scott), and their children (Richard Eyer and Mary Murphy), to behave normally, as if nothing had happened.

However, son Eyer, upset that his father won’t resist Griffin, sees him as a cowardly man.

And soon, under pressures, other familial tensions come to the fore.

The authorities are alerted when Hilliard, at Griffin’s demand, draws money for the convict’s getaway from the bank. Pushed to the breaking point, Hilliard proves to himself and to his son than he can be tough and merciless when needed.

Paul Newman had played Bogart’s part in the original Broadway production, but he was not a bankable star at the time.

There’s a good deal of irony in the fact that Bogart began and then ended his career by playing criminals and gangsters.


Stay away from the 1991 remake, also titled The Desperate Hours, with Mickey Rourke in the Bogart role, and Anthony Hopkins in Fredric March’s.

The 1994 black comedy The Ref also features a similar plot, with a criminal on the lam (Denis Leary) taking a couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) hostage in their own home.

Humphrey Bogart as Glenn Griffin
Fredric March as Daniel C. Hilliard
Arthur Kennedy as Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard
Martha Scott as Ellie Hilliard
Dewey Martin as Hal Griffin
Gig Young as Chuck Wright
Mary Murphy as Cindy Hilliard
Richard Eyer as Ralphy Hilliard
Robert Middleton as Samuel Kobish
Walter Baldwin as George Patterson
Whit Bissell as FBI Agent Carson
Ray Teal as State Police Lieutenant
Ray Collins as Sheriff Masters
Simon Oakland as State Trooper (uncredited)
Burt Mustin as Night Watchman (“Carl”) (uncredited)
Alan Reed as Policeman (“Dutch”)
Joe Flynn as motorist (uncredited)


Produced, directed by William Wyler
Screenplay by Joseph Hayes and Jay Dratler, based on 1954 novel The Desperate Hours, 1955 play The Desperate Hours by Joseph Hayes
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Edited by Robert Swink
Music by Gail Kubik
Daniele Amfitheatrof (uncredited)
Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Release date: October 5, 1955

Running time: 113 minutes
Budget $2,388,000
Box office $2.5 million (US)



Actual events that took place on September 11 and 12 in 1952, wherein the five members of the Hill family were held hostage for 19 hours, inspired the 1954 Joseph Hayes novel which, in turn, inspired the 1955 play on which the movie was based.

The Hill family (formerly of Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania) sued Time, Inc., because the magazine published an article in the February 1955 issue about the play, describing it as based on the actual events. The article was illustrated by staged photos with actors in the actual home that was the scene of the events, the Hills having moved away, making efforts to discourage publicity. The Hills’ complaint was that the article falsely described the actual events while claiming it represented the truth.

After the home invasion event, Hill told the press the family had not been molested or harmed, and in fact had been treated courteously. The Life article, however, stated that some family members had been assaulted, profanity used, and in other ways differed from the account Hill had given.

Suing in a New York court, the plaintiffs relied on a New York statute which permitted damages suits for violation of the right of privacy only in instances of use of a person’s name or picture for commercial purposes without consent. The statute, however, had been interpreted by the New York courts to make the truth of the publication a defense. The defense for Time, Inc., was that the matter was of general interest and the article had been published in good faith. A jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages, but the state appellate court awarded new trial at which only compensatory damages could be considered, while sustaining liability. This order was affirmed by the highest state court.

Time appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the First Amendment prohibited holding the publisher liable unless the article was known by it to be false, or at least was published with disregard as to its truth or falsity. The jury had not been so instructed, so the judgment could not stand. This ruling was significant expansion of press protection, for a (qualified) immunity from damages was extended to publishing matter about people who were newsworthy only by accident, as opposed to, for example, government officials. The relevant cases had only dealt with such so-called “public figures” who were suing publishers.

Hill was represented in the High Court by Richard M. Nixon, at that time an attorney in private practice. The Supreme Court made it extremely difficult even for ordinarily persons to prevail in defamation or “false light” invasion of privacy case.