One of the more eccentric neo-noir releases of the 80s and 90s, Michael Cimino’s Desperate Hours is a remake of William Wyler’s 1955 film of the same name, which details the travails of a regular suburban family when a gangster on the run uses their home as shelter for twenty-four hours. Starring Mickey Rourke as a very plausible descendent of Humphrey Bogart and Anthony Hopkins as the homeowner whose family he holds hostage, it’s set in Los Angeles, rather than Indianapolis, but apart from that largely conforms to Wyler’s original narrative, with the – critical – exception of an opening scene and recurring subplot that take place outside the confines of the home invasion. This new component more or less plays as a sustained car chase, which sits quite unusually against the static and suspenseful suburban space where the majority of the action occurs, especially because it is such a kinetic and vivid chase, suffusing the opening scenes of the film with the kind of pure cinematic spectacle – movement and momentum for its own sake – that Cimino did so well. At the same time, all the classicism inherent in neo-noir is exacerbated during this more marginal part of the film as well, which often seems to be unfolding against a series of matte prints, and to be shot in Technicolor or Metrocolor, imbuing every object and vista with a Hitchcockian potentiality and placing the main narrative of the film in conspicuous and self-conscious quotation marks without quite adopting an ironic distance from it either.
First and foremost, that kinetic classicism produces an incredible dynamism between the different players throughout the home invasion, as Cimino adopts the same restless, hyperactive, constantly moving mise-en-scenes that made Heaven’s Gate so astonishing. Whereas the original film was something of a transition between classical noir and suburban melodrama, Cimino here draws on the melodrama much more than noir, imbuing every scene with a manic, crazed, high-speed energy but identifying his camera and characters so thoroughly with it that the intensity and inanity is almost impossible to resist. As many critics at the time noted, the plot is utterly implausible at almost every turn, like the staggering array of sublime landscapes traversed by the opening car chase alone, but it’s that taste for hyperbole, that search for ever more extreme visual experiences, that gives the film such an incredible sense of pace. For the most part, it feels like a movie shot from the window of a moving car, cementing Cimino as a master of momentum, of doing anything and everything to amp up the adrenalin from scene to scene, with the opening playing like the climax of a conventional film and the remainder accelerating from thereon.
While that insatiable expansion of intensity might initially seem to be curtailed by the home invasion genre, and its requisite focus on a single confined location, the house in question just seems to open up more space for the film to roam and explore, as Cimino’s camera responds to the more placid backdrop of the suburbs by doubling down on its hyperactive framing and manic movements, as if updating Wyler’s signature deep focus for an era of more mobile cinematography. Before it even has a chance to seem real, or register as a regular space, this house is both hyperreal and hyperspatial, as the ever-proliferating spatial co-ordinates – convex mirrors, taut telephone lines, windows within windows – quickly exceed the capacities of any one particular space, and instead situate Cimino’s mise-en-scenes within the archetypal luxurious family home that anchored so much American cinema made for white audiences in the early 90s. In effect, the film inhabits a fantasy, but refuses to present it as anything other than a fantasy, which is perhaps why the shift from Indianapolis to Los Angeles feels so crucial, since it allows Cimino to envisage a version of the LA sprawl that refuses to exempt even the most privileged suburban shooting locations from the hyperkinetic, automotive maelstrom of the city around them, dovetailing Los Angeles as both location and shooting location in quite an uncanny and unsettling manner.
As a result, even the most domestic and sacrosanct spaces in the film never quite divest themselves of the intensity of the opening car chase, just as even the stillest and quietest moments brim with the unspoken possibility that action could suddenly break into some kind of drastic, traumatic or kinetic crisis. While the energy of the opening scene may be partly subsumed into the siege, it never truly goes away, even or especially as Cimino parodically tries to drown it beneath an intensified version of the saccharine pastoral-nostalgic musical motifs so popular with American picket fence films of the early 90s. In the process, he reveals that even the quietest and most “tasteful” filming locations in Los Angeles are continuous with the most mediated parts of the city, since while the action may unfold against the same archetypal San Marino or Pasadena-styled house as every other early 90s suburban drama, Cimino also refuses to extricate this archetype from the hyperreality of the city around it – and, doing so, exposes it as a hyperreal fantasy in its own right. To some extent, that undercuts any clear sense of closure or climax at the end, since if the entire film is shot in a fantasy, then the home invasion punctures a fantasy as much as a physical space, unsettling the imminent restoration of the family structure by framing it as a part of the very fantasy that has been exposed and parsed by the aesthetic of the film in the first place.
For Rourke’s character to be defeated as Bogart’s character was in the original film therefore requires the reassertion of the fantasy structure of Hollywood, rather than a more conventional criminal or procedural conclusion. Accordingly, when Rourke does go down, it’s in the face of a spectacular conflation of helicopter and spotlight on the fringes of Hopkins’ character’s property – a situation that he could plausibly escape, but which within the logic of the film functions as a kind of primal image, or an assertion of the primacy of the image, forcing him to subsume himself back into the fantastic version of the house, and the correct kind of people to inhabit the house, that the film has deconstructed. In fact, Wyler’s original already foreshadows this in its conclusion, which presents Bogart as destroyed first by a spotlight and only second by gunfire, and in both films the victory is somewhat Pyrrhic, just because it comes at the cost of explicating the enormous imagistic apparatus required to maintain the fantasy that the two respective home owners have struggled to reassert.
Yet whereas Wyler’s film dealt with that artifice by embracing – and almost over-identifying with – its status as a filmed play, here that artifice is translated from the theatrical residue of the screenplay to the cinematicity of the adaptation itself, as every gesture is exaggerated and stylised, and Cimino’s scenes become glossier and glossier, more and more polished, until every surface and texture is so airbrushed and streamlined that the camera glides over them at an almost unbearable pace, paving the way for a supersonic conclusion that extrapolates car, bike, helicopter and plane chases from the quietest recesses of Hollywood’s most privileged suburban sanctuaries. Like John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up, then, this is a film that tries to envisage Los Angeles as both the centre of America’s suburban fantasies and as the cutting edge of the aerospace industry, exuding the frantic thrill of a hyperreal-time narrative even or especially as it overindulges in the contemplative veneer of tasteful 90s Hollywood. That’s a profoundly unsettling combination, as Cimino’s camera alternately seeks out the most sequestered spaces within Hopkins’ home, but also grows ever more prescient of a movement and energy that requires the camera to articulate the full curvature of the earth to do it justice, bending and curving his lenses until they converge on a kind of proto-drone aesthetic, and a sequence of shots that are always on the verge of taking off and jettisoning themselves from any recognisably human agency.
For all the critical derision it received at the time, then, few films of this era visualise what Slavoj Zizek described as the “desert of the Real” quite like Desperate Hours. In his efforts to envisage the curvature of the basin beneath Los Angeles’ most pastoral vistas, and the broad arcs animating Hollywood’s suburban fantasies, Cimino grafts the unthinkable contradictions of both Los Angeles and Hollywood, as they stood in the early 90s, into one seamless package – a package all the more disorienting in that it almost passes as a typical nostalgia piece, just as Heaven’s Gate almost passes as a typical auteurist Western. No wonder that critics at the time dismissed it as incompetent – or had to disavow it as incompetent – but in a way the film already dismisses that criticism, if only because Rourke’s character is himself a kind of idealised viewer of the film, “looking for a place to call home…just for a few hours.” To see him finally debilitated at the hands of Cimino’s hyperreal simulacrum of suburbia is therefore to realise that the white picket fences that dominated so much early 90s Hollywood were only capable of sustaining themselves for a couple of hours at a time, with Desperate Hours extending them just a little beyond their regular limit until they collapse back into the image production that subtends them, in one of the most deftly deconstructive visions of Hollywood across Cimino’s provocative and idiosyncratic career.