The Desperate Hours is a popular novel, play, and movie written by Indianapolis native Joseph Hayes. A playwright, novelist, and screenwriter, he first wrote the work as a novel, and it was later adapted for the stage and screen.

A man is sitting at a desk.
Joseph Hayes, ca. 1980 Credit: Indiana University View Source

Desperate Hours begins in Terre Haute when three men escape from the federal prison there. The fugitives from justice flee to Indianapolis and take the Hilliard family hostage while they wait for a former girlfriend to bring money.

Dan and Eleanor Hilliard, daughter Cindy, and son Ralphie find their northside home and their lives at the command of the escapees. As days go by and the money does not come, tempers grow short, and the situation becomes tense as Dan tries to protect his family. The youngest fugitive flees and is killed in a highway accident. Dan succeeds in tipping off the police, Cindy’s suspicious boyfriend becomes involved by sneaking into the residence, and even Ralphie tries to save his family by slipping a note to a teacher. As police piece clues together, a stake-out is set, and the family is rescued. One of the remaining escapees is killed, and the other is apprehended.

Made into a Broadway play starring Karl Malden as Dan Hilliard and Paul Newman as the escapees’ leader, the production won a Tony award for Best Play in 1956. The novel has been made into a movie twice. The first, featuring Fredric March and Humphrey Bogart, had its midwestern premiere at the Circle Theatre in Indianapolis on October 26, 1955. Hayes attended the premiere and explained to the audience that his story, while set in Indianapolis, was not based on any specific local incident.

The remake, set in Utah, was produced in 1990 starring Anthony Hopkins and Michael Rourke. The novel has been translated into many languages.

Revised March 2021

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