Monday, August 18, 2014


Fritz Lang, 1954
Starring: Gloria Grahame, Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford

Carl Buckley is fired from his job with a railway station and his lovely, younger wife intervenes with an influential businessman, someone she has known since childhood. When Buckley figures out that she also had an affair with the man, he becomes homicidally jealous and beats and threatens to kill Vicki, his wife, unless she participates in the man's murder. They follow him on board a train, where Vicki acts as a guard and Carl murders him. During the night, a train engineer, Jeff, meets Vicki and she partially seduces him to distract him. Later, at the trial, he pretends he saw no one. They begin an affair, where Vicki admits that her husband is jealous and violent. Soon, she tries to convince Jeff that the only solution is for him to kill Carl one lonely, dark night at the train yard...

Human Desire's main issue is perhaps the fact that it's trapped between the legacy of two superior films. This is Fritz Lang's follow up to The Big Heat (1953), an earlier film noir that also starred Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford. It remains one of the best in the noir canon. Human Desire is also a loose remake of Jean Renoir's excellent French poetic-realist film, La bête humaine (1938), itself an adaptation of Emile Zola's novel of the same name. Human Desire has perhaps had too much to live up to being compared to these cinematic giants. Though it is not the equal of either of these films, it is still an excellent film and the fact that it's so little known is a shame.

As in The Big Heat and the later In a Lonely Place, Grahame's character, Vicki, is fantastically complex. She's not just a by-the-books femme fatale, but rather is a tragic, desperate figure, trapped between a man of murderous jealousy who beats and manipulates her, and another man who pretends kindness and love, but has a clandestine sexual affair with her and then abandons her to her fate. She also tells Jeff a story that when she was a teenager, Owens (the man murdered by her husband), raped her and they carried on an affair against her will for many years. She married her husband to escape this. She is a lonely woman without financial or emotional refuge and is begging to be loved and cared for. She is also a selfish liar and a manipulator, content to use her powerful sexuality to her own ends, but she's also broken and vulnerable. Vicki's feelings for Jeff also seem genuine. Grahame gives an excellent, nuanced performance, one that makes the film worth watching multiple times. Ford's reaction to her – flat and static that it may be – is what makes the film truly sordid. He abandons her for the suburban goody-two-shoes, for marriage and the dull trappings of domesticity.

Suburban life is offset by the presence of trains, which are a powerful presence within the film, a place of industry, sex, and death. Both Jeff and Carl are train conductors, the murdered man is an important client of the railroad, his murder takes place on the train, as does Vicki's seduction of Carl. Though Ford's Jeff – a Korean War vet – is the train's conductor, he is powerless over the events. As with The Big Heat, there's a neutered quality to his masculinity and he is simply moved through the film by the actions of the other characters – like a car across the tracks. Part of his personality is desperate and disillusioned, a common post-war theme in noir, but his lack of action is revolting and pathetic. Broderick Crawford's Carl Buckley is an interesting parallel to this. In many instances, he is also weak and aimless. He is fired from his job and needs his wife to seduce an old friend in order to get it back. But unlike Jeff, he is fueled only by his insane sexual jealousy and this – rather than personal ambition or greed – moves him to commit murder.

Though this isn't one of Lang's richest and most compelling films, it's fast-paced and suspenseful. There's some wonderful expressionistic cinematography from Burnett Guffey (The Reckless Moment) and Grahame is always worth watching. If you like Lang, Grahame, or the more suburban-themed film noir, this is a must-see. Lang's treatment of female characters is fascinating throughout his American noir run and his female leads are some of the best in film noir. Human Desire comes highly recommended, though it is not available on region 1 DVD. With a little searching, however, you can find it online.

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