We are living in an extraordinarily safe and peaceful time and place. You won’t read about it in a regular newspaper, but this is a fantastic time to be alive.
The average man reading this column will not get into a single fist fight for the rest of his life. It’s incredible.
The question is whether society has gotten so pacific that we have become completely soft and vulnerable.
In 1955, the year “The Desperate Hours” was released, the average male experience was profoundly different. Most American men had been through basic training. A solid percentage had fought in WWII or Korea. If you pointed a gun at them, it wasn’t a novel experience.
If you hold a middle-aged man like me hostage today, I’ll probably comply with your every demand. If you held a middle-aged man hostage in 1955, you ran the risk of him going Liam Neeson on you.
In “The Desperate Hours,” the Liam Neeson character is Dan Hilliard (Frederic March). Dan is an upper middle class family man. He’s good-natured and mild-mannered. Until you push him.
The action begins quickly. A trio of escaped convicts invade the Hilliard house. The gang of ruffians is led by Glen Griffin (Humphrey Bogart) and his little brother. Glen tells the Hilliards that they are just going to be there until midnight when his girlfriend comes by with a car and money.
There’s a tender scene early on where Dan has a moment to talk to his confused 7-year-old son. “Yeah, I’m scared,” Dan tells his boy. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m scared.”
But Dan is also angry. Frederic March is largely forgotten today, but he was a fantastic actor. With few words, you see him weighing his feelings and weighing his options.
And as desperate hours turn into days, Dan’s rage begins to outweigh his fear. Somewhere along the way, the tide of the film shifts. We begin worrying less about the safety of the family. And more about the ex-cons. Amazing director, William Wyler, builds first-rate tension and uncertainty.
For his part, Humphrey Bogart makes Glen Griffin more sophisticated than your average thug. He visibly admires Dan for his bravery and moxie. But Glen simultaneously resents him for his beautiful, comfortable life.
Class envy is an underlying theme. Early on, Glen boasts that he taught his little brother everything he knows. “Yeah, everything except how to live in a house like this,” he ruefully responds.
“The Desperate Hours” is a perfectly crafted suspense film. And it’s an interesting anthropological artifact from a different time in American history: a time when the average man learned violence on government bases rather than video games. A time when a mild-mannered guy in a business suit could become very dangerous if you pushed him.