As the credits roll, the camera zooms its way down a residential street but doesn’t feel natural. It’s like a peering gaze casing the scene as music hammers away in the background. What makes the imagery more disconcerting is that this tranquil picture-perfect suburbia could be plucked right out of Leave it to Beaver. In fact, coincidentally, the house is the very same!
In this film, it belongs to your typical everyday family circa 1955. The man of the house, Fredric March, sits around the breakfast table, preparing for his job at local bank, bemoaning the fact his kids are growing up.
Little Junior is already showing signs. Not wanting to kiss his pops goodbye. His daughter is lovestruck and intent on marrying her beau, which he can’t stand to think about. His wife is perfect. Pretty, maternal, and a fabulous homemaker. Its all a bit insipid on the whole but that’s very purposeful. Currently, we might call his daily struggles “first world problems.”
It is a bit of the lifestyle that can be easily plucked out of any of the old family sitcoms from Fathers Knows Best to The Donna Reed Show. And yet what those portraits of the nuclear family never did have was the threat of three convicts at-large…
Their hardened leader is Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart) joined by the boisterous slob Kobish (Robert Middleton), and Griffin’s kid brother Hal (Dewey Martin). Come to think of it, there was an episode of The Andy Griffith Show with striking parallels, albeit with more comical resolutions. As is, William Wyler’s piece falls more in line with The Detective Story (1951) from a few years prior pushing the stage elements out a bit but still centering its action on the family domicile.
Arthur Kennedy at the Police Precinct is brought on the case but he really feels like a wasted opportunity and a dead-end at best. The real meat of the story is within that house between the two men vying for control.
Bogart, who got his break in Petrified Forest (1936) as a crazed heavy, is essentially book-ending his career with tough guy roles. Even if he’s over the hill for such roles, he still makes a good snarling approximation of his former self. One could argue that time has only made him more disgruntled and worn. His convict is a much more sorry figure with 20 years sagging under his dour eyes.
He plans to lay low in the residential neighborhood until the money they’re expecting gets sent their way. So we expect the plot to be a waiting game. Except the subsequent tension comes with criminals existing in such close proximity to this family, a theme running through other contemporary dramas like He Ran All The Way (1951) and Suddenly (1954).
To be ousted by the authorities means that everyone gets it. And yet the Hilliards are commanded to stick to their daily rhythms as closely as possible, even as the fugitives take over the home and turn it into a shambles. The conflict that goes through Mr. Hilliard’s head is between doing as the convicts say to protect his family and trying to get in contact with the police. He’s faced with the most nervewracking proposition of his life as the hours tick excruciatingly by.
When March finally gets to his office, frazzled by the turn of events, it feels like a Wyler touch of perfectionism to have three portraits prominently sitting in his office. The way they’re arranged perfectly toward the camera feels blatantly artificial. No one would have them set up that way and yet they’re implicitly reminding him (and us) that the lives of the people he holds most dear are still in constant jeopardy. The worst part: he’s all but powerless to do anything about it.
Meanwhile, the police are shacked up in Al’s Dining Room kitchen as their command center itches for a decent lead. Cindy tries to head off her beau (a far too old Gig Young) so he doesn’t find out about the fugitives and get the family in more trouble. A garbage man gets it for seeing too much. Mr. Hilliard sweats it out waiting for a letter loaded with cash destined for his office.
One can easily surmise Wyler had great relish filming along the staircase because it all but visually summarizes the tension of the film. Stairs are all about space and the relationship of people to one another. It’s shorthand to explain an unbalance or shift in power. For Mr. Hilliard, this is about his family. That’s all that matters. For the policeman who’s just thinking about his reelection, it’s an entirely different scenario.
And what the picture does tease out is the idea that extreme duress often causes people to show their true colors, whether empowered by integrity or saddled by cowardice. In the end, a businessman living a so-called cushy life shows a fiercely defiant fortitude that ultimately holds his family together. It has less to do with the police or even the criminals that stakeout in his home.
In the end, it’s his own grit, determination, and will to protect his family that wins out. If the film is an exercise in suburban melodrama, it’s also a resounding testament to the human spirit as well. The scary part is that like The Hitchhiker before it, the story was partially based on real-life events. Why is that frightening, you ask? It means real people were faced with these dire consequences. We saw what they did? Implicitly we must also beg the question, what would we do when the desperate hours hit us?