Another installment in the blog battle between a classic book and the film it spawned.
My sister once remarked that, “Whenever you have a movie about people who take other people hostage in their own homes, you usually have ‘a mean leader, who’s the brains of the outfit’, ‘a slower-witted follower’, and ‘a young, impulsive [sometimes psycho]’.” Although it’s a generalization, she’s right. It is a formula we’ve seen more than once, for example, in Panic Room (2002), and in one of my favorite films, The Desperate Hours (1955), which was, coincidentally, the film my sister was actually raving about as she made the more-observation-than-disparaging remark, even doing a bit of an impression of one of the film’s two stars, Humphrey Bogart. She has nothing against the film. She just has a keen eye for film clichés. (Don’t get her started on prison movies and that little light they always shine into “the hole”.)
I’ve seen The Desperate Hours an amount of times that’s just way (way, way) too embarrassing to admit. In the ‘90s, I recorded it when it aired on AMC, when they still ran commercial-free, classic-film programming. My video tape of the film is worn out, but I still watch it on my beat-up combo TV-VCR because I enjoy AMC host Bob Dorian’s commentary surrounding the film. (And, my favorite film director is William Wyler, who helmed The Desperate Hours. The other star of the film, Fredric March, is my favorite actor. Wyler’s 1946 masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives, starring March, who won a Best Actor Oscar® for his role in that film, is my all-time favorite movie. Tape. Worn. Out.)
When it finally dawned on me that I should read the 1954 book by Joseph Hayes that led to the film, I shifted my usual the-book-is-better-than-the-film paradigm, expecting anything Wyler and March together gave us to buck the trend and smoke the book.
For the first few chapters, I was right. Wyler and March had my back. Hayes’s writing is arcane. At times, he takes the idea of “narration” to the extreme, literally telling you every move someone makes. I can’t lie: The first 30 pages were a slogfest. It took me about three weeks to get through them. What kept me reading, aside from my determination to get through the entire book that had spawned a favorite film, was that those 30 pages were full of great plot and interesting backstory. I realized that Hayes was telling a good story and using clunky language to do it.
I hung in there, and I’m glad I did, for the story became so compelling, that Hayes got out of his own way, dropped a lot of the bulk, and just told the story. As a writer, I can guess what happened: At the beginning, he was getting to know everybody. They hadn’t yet imposed on him enough to insist on being written in a way that flowed faster. He had time to dally. Once his great story picked up steam, his well-drawn characters probably guided him in getting on with it. “Look where you’re taking me. That’s fab. Cut the unnecessary details, and get me there faster, Joe!” you can almost hear them yelling. Not only is the evidence on the pages themselves, where the writing becomes markedly more streamlined as the book progresses, but, for me, it is in the fact that I devoured pages 41 to 246 (the last page) in a little over a day. Once Hayes rounded the corner, he floored it.
I’ve talked about this before, but what makes classic books that are the bases of classic films enthralling is the glimpse they give you into life at the time the book was written without being watered down by Hollywood’s Production Code mores. To be sure, some of the Code guidelines were a matter of public safety and welfare and were the foundation for needed protections that happily exist today, for example, those guidelines barring child pornography. Where the Code went off the rails, aside from its I’m the Decider views on race, gender, religion, and politics, was in its unwillingness to factor in that area of life where sometimes the bad guy prevails and people get screwed. It wholly omitted large chunks of bad news, which, in real life, would never be so cooperative as to simply go away the way it does in Code Era films. Forget art, voyeurism, or entertainment. We couldn’t even look for the sake of learning that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Per the Code, whatever doesn’t act right ends up dead.
The Desperate Hours is about three escaped convicts who take a family hostage, one who leads, one who follows, and one who’s restless. But where the film maintains certain boundaries and permits its protagonists to go only so far in finding ways to survive being held hostage, at gunpoint, in their own home, the book lets everyone get dirty. The hostages aid and abet their own victim-hood with crimes committed to stay safe. They provide cover to the men who have violated and threatened them and committed murder since their escape from prison, deeds that usually require death or other punishment in a Code Era film. I’ve written before how, when writing historical fiction, an author has to overcome a reader’s preconceived notions about history gleaned from incorrect films. Any of us who’s watched a scintilla of television has an historical worldview influenced by Hollywood. Nothing shatters those misconceptions more deftly than 300 pages of behavior depicted by a contemporary of the time period portrayed. Joseph Hayes showing us a 1950s family behaving like a Y2K family helps destroy some of the myths pushed by the Golden Era of film. Despite the fictional nature of the medium—a book full of made up incidents in the form a story—the references to human behavior are real. The curse words are real. Getting away with crime is getting away with crime regardless of when it happened.
Two of the three convicts are brothers, but where, in the film, we assume Humphrey Bogart’s Glenn Griffin has willingly led his much younger brother Hank into a life of crime and we don’t really care how he got to prison—it’s Humphrey Bogart; we’ll take him driving a truck (They Drive by Night; 1940), running a Moroccan café (Casablanca; 1942), or losing his mind on the deck of a ship (The Caine Mutiny; 1954) and not ask a lot of questions—in the book, Glenn and Hank are just 25 and an unspecified younger age, respectively. We learn more about their awful childhoods. We understand how they ended up in prison, and as the story reaches the third act, and the walls of their history close in on them, particularly Hank, we can’t help but feel sorrow for how they’ve ended up, even if we don’t feel sorry about how they may have to pay for what they’ve done since escaping. This sympathy is possible largely because Hayes was permitted to draw real characters. In the book, Glenn is particularly flawed in a way that defied Hollywood’s idea of what it meant to be a man. Hayes gives us a much more angst-filled whiner who is self-centered due to a weakness that demands it for self-preservation and who is not always clever or fully in charge. While in the film the brothers bicker about strategy, in the book they argue bitterly about family dynamics, about who is a loser and why one has been so insecure he’s needed to proclaim himself a winner.
Hayes’s inconsistently masculine but realistic version of Glenn—an insecure man who grew up in a vicious environment turns to crime and drags others down—would unlikely be the successful, fully functioning, prevailing-in-the-end lead on the silver screen of the ’50s. Hollywood would mitigate some of the whining, would require that the flawed lead lean into it, to prove he’s not weak as he screws up. He means to be that way. He’s in charge. He’d likely be dead or in jail or bitterly alone by the final reel. This overarching standard coupled with not caring too much about how Bogart’s Glenn got where he is because we just want to see what he does makes for a shallower proposition that allows Bogart to play Glenn in a more Hollywood—but less interesting—manner. And if I may beat the horse dead, because the Code sets out certain outcomes based on events and not story, subconsciously, we don’t care about the deeper implications of why Bogart’s Glenn is the way he is. We know he’s going to pay in the end. In Hayes’s version, you have no idea who will end up how, where, or why.
Where the book also shines is when we see the family’s somewhat complicit attitude about being held hostage. We all have a bit of swagger when talking about what we would do if we were in a similar situation as the family in The Desperate Hours (“I’d kill anybody who came into my house and…”), but in life, fear can be paralyzing enough to make people go along to get along. In real life, criminals have two advantages: they saw themselves coming, and they’re playing a game for which only they know the rules. A victim may only be a few seconds behind in surmising the situation and assessing the threats, but those few seconds can be enough of a breach for a criminal to exploit and keep a victim off-kilter. Hayes knows this. Because the three men are driving the narrative of the Hilliards’ lives, it’s natural that the Hilliards are constantly playing from behind and losing. The frantic way that they pivot throughout the book is suspenseful and gripping. Hayes does a wonderful job of allowing us into Dan Hilliard, the father’s, head to hear his mind going “clickety-click” every second, looking for a way out. We get to spy on his mulling over every possible avenue of escape. Each time he does something against his family’s interest, it makes entire sense because we’ve overheard why any other way wouldn’t work.
The family’s 19-year-old daughter, Cindy, is written with a fantastic level of sophistication that’s plausibly beyond her years. She has a good job in a solid law firm. Although she works with her lawyer-boyfriend, Chuck Wright, she doesn’t hesitate to “do what she must do” and blow off Chuck, a man she loves, when the hostage-takers insist that she go to work and act normal. Chuck, meanwhile, sees that something is afoot and begins his own odyssey of lawbreaking. He flat-out interferes with a police investigation, hides evidence, and uses stealthy borderline military tactics to protect his girlfriend, something he was not permitted to do in the film. The Code simply wouldn’t allow Film Chuck to do what Book Chuck does. It’s a shame. Book Chuck is a renegade, who factors in heavily in the book, and who is marginalized in the film, and I found myself rewinding in my head the ______s of times I’ve seen the film and wishing the screenplay had let Gig Young (perfect casting of Chuck) do far more than it let him.
I still love the film version of The Desperate Hours. In fact, after reading the book, I went to watch the VHS and was panicked when I couldn’t find it. It wasn’t until I employed logic and hit the eject button on the VCR that the tape, which holds Ball of Fire (1941), D.O.A. (1950), and The Desperate Hours popped out. I should have known. What I know I will now do the next million times (oops) I watch the film, is mentally “fill in” the screen version with backstory from the book. We do that anyway, if we’ve read the book on which the movie is based, but it’s usually when we’ve read the book first. It will be a slightly different experience to take a movie that has, for me, always been the definitive version of the story, a movie of which I know every movement and line, and allow in “interloper” material from the book. It’ll be worth making the adjustment, though.
Advantage, book. ♠EL