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Monday, February 4, 2008

The Movie Hostages (originally published 5/02)

In most movies built around the taking of hostages, the hostage taker is the villain of the piece. The recently released "John Q," starring Denzel Washington as a frustrated father whose child has been failed by the health care system, reverses that convention by aligning our sympathies with the hostage taker. Either way, a hostage situation is ideal as a basis for engaging drama, since it usually involves, one way or another, an act of desperation. Here are some earlier hostage movies to look for on home video.

"The Petrified Forest" (1936). Humphrey Bogart, in the breakthrough role that launched his career in Hollywood, plays Duke Mantee, a gangster who holds a group of people hostage in a lonely desert café. Based on a play by Robert Sherwood, the film stars Leslie Howard, who insisted on Bogart for the role of Mantee after seeing him play the part on Broadway. Screenwriters Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves sensibly left Sherwood's excellent dialogue largely intact, allowing the intriguing cast of characters to carry the film rather than relying on suspense alone. Reproduced below is the film's original promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"The Desperate Hours" (1955). Some twenty years later, Bogart again played a hostage taker. In the role of escaped convict Glenn Griffin, he holds a terrified family hostage; not in a desert café, but in their own quiet, suburban home. Fredric March and Martha Scott play Dan and Eleanor Hilliard, two perfectly ordinary people who suddenly find themselves in the midst of a crisis with which they are completely unprepared to cope.

"The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974). Robert Shaw plays the leader of a gang of men who hijack a New York City subway train, holding the passengers for ransom. Walter Matthau plays the city transit cop who has to try to manage the situation. Shaw and Matthau are excellent, playing off each other by radio communication for much of the film. Director Joseph Sargent does an admirable job of keeping the suspense taut and the action thrilling.

"Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). Frank Pierson's Academy Award-winning script looks at hostage taking as a media event by loosely recreating an actual incident from August of 1972. Al Pacino and John Cazale star as a couple of inept bank robbers. Their attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank quickly degenerates into a standoff as they are forced to hold the bank employees hostage to keep at bay the police waiting outside to apprehend them. As the standoff drags on, a crowd gathers outside, along with the inevitable television cameras. Soon both the robbers and the hostages are playing to the cameras, milking their fifteen minutes of fame. This remarkable film represents one of the most outstanding achievements of Hollywood in the seventies. Pacino and director Sidney Lumet were both operating at the top of their game, taking what could easily have been a bland, cliched movie of the week and turning it into a fascinating, entertaining slice of life with rich, full-bodied characterizations.

"The Delta Force" (1986). Director and co-scripter Menahem Golan based this Chuck Norris vehicle on the June 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and the subsequent hostage situation in Beirut. Although names are changed, the recreation of some of the most dramatic moments from that event leave no doubt as to the intended reference. By fictionalizing the story, however, Golan allows himself to tack on a wish-fulfillment ending, in which an American anti-terrorist squadron swoops in and saves the day.

"Cadillac Man" (1990). Fast talking car salesman Joey O'Brien (Robin Williams) is having a bad day. He's in dutch with his ex-wife, his boss, and the mob. The last thing he needs on top of all that is a jealous husband to deal with. That's when Larry (Tim Robbins), the husband of a secretary at the dealership, crashes through the showroom window on his motorcycle, brandishing a gun and looking for his wife's lover. The situation quickly gets out of hand, with Larry holding everyone hostage and Joey calling on his persuasive skills to try to talk Larry out of doing anything permanent.

There are plenty of other good hostage movies I could tell you about, but if you want their titles you'll have to meet my list of demands, starting with the release of my comrades in arms in the Disney dungeons at Orlando.

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