Fritz Lang Season – Human Desire (1954)
Poor old Gloria Grahame, the grand dame of movie femme fatales has got herself in another murderous pinch with her old man. She plays Vicki, the slightly bored working class wife of Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford), a railway worker with a drinking problem whose just got himself fired following a drunken altercation with his boss. Seeking to make amends she visits the higher-ups and convinces them to reinstate her husband, but in another drunken rage he suspects she has compromised herself and takes his rage out on his boss with murderous results. Framing the death as a robbery to keep the bulls off their tail Vicki now realizes she is in mortal danger from the psychopathic brute, so she turns her feminine wiles to Korean war vet Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) who’s just looking for a peaceful and uneventful life at home – be careful what you wish for soldier. One of the great pleasures of a film season is the chance to track down some missing pieces in the celluloid puzzle, alongside this I’ve also seen The Blue Gardenia and Man Hunt for the first time, and revisited While The City Sleeps, Beyond A Reasonable Doubt and Clash By Night to refresh the Lang lithography, and as a late period piece in his extensive career this is a slight, yet entertaining hors d’oeuvre.
The story had been filmed twice before: La Bête Humaine (1938) directed by non other than the cinephile champion Jean Renoir and Die Bestie im Menschen (1920), both loosely based on the novel by Emile Zola – bloody remakes and reimagining’s eh? What a thoroughly modern inconvenience. The film plays as much as a melodrama than a clear noir although it shares much of the inky iconography – sexual manipulation, a murder plot, urban uniformity, a tragic trajectory. Rather than soured gin-joints or rain-sodden streets however the film develops in modest domestic environments or on the railroad train tracks, an intersecting criss-cross of humming vehicles foreshadowing the impact that Vicki will have on Jeff’s quiet and modest life. The serviceman returning to normality is a noir trope but has shifted from the Pacific and European theatres of World War II to Korea in Human Desire, but the crepuscular concept remains the same – broken and scarred men struggling with conformity, yearning to be domesticated and rekindle the suburban American dream.
Re-teaming the sizzling duo of Grahame and Ford from 1953’s The Big Heat reminds me of the Joan Bennett & Edward G. Robinson double act that Lang cast back in the 1940’s, an effective advertising hook for the studio marketers to proudly proclaim ‘SEE X & Y BACK TOGETHER AGAIN’, just like Bogart and Bacall, Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire, and many other purring pairings. Human Desire reminds one of the murderous seduction of The Postman Always Rings Twice, although Grahame isn’t just the cruelly manipulative femme fatale of most noir nightmares, she’s more a desperate women increasingly pushed into a desperate corner. She sure knows exactly what she’s doing and what buttons to press on those panting men but her will is propelled from a position of terrified survival rather than cold greed or stiletto sharp cruelty.
There is a more naturalistic approach to the material than one would normally expect from Lang’s blackly American grotesques, its palpably evident that the film was produced at the tail end of his career, a diluted noir which may be for genre completests only. Although the film pivots on a love triangle its Grahame’s film through and through, she playing a silky game of spinning her web of desperate deceit and desire, as the plot moves to its inevitable and inexorable, switchblade silvered conclusion.Overall the film does feel a little hurried, more of a quota quickie spun into production and swiftly out into theatres rather than a tale deeply considered and contemplated, but noir fans should enjoy the delicate frisson between Grahame and Glen, with a few scenes that burn with a sharpened intensity. In this iteration of Lang’s universe it is lethally dangerous for the train of life to divert from its prelaid tracks, and desire is a destination not to be trusted;