Human Desire (1954) Fritz Lang

dŽsirs humains

The bad rap against “Human Desire” is that it’s not as good as Renoir’s “La Bete Humaine” (released in the U.S. as The Human Beast), the French film it was based on, nor it is not as good as the earlier Lang, Ford, Grahame, collaboration, “The Big Heat.” Still, on its own terms “Human Desire” is a well-paced engrossing film noir. The biggest problem with the film is Glenn Ford’s flat performance which lacks the dark mood required for this tale of seduction, passion and murder. His nice guy personality almost derails the film; however, it’s saved only by Lang’s camera and the enticing nuanced performance of Gloria Grahame.

Based on a novel by Emile Zola, the plot revolves around Jeff Warren (Ford), a recently discharged Korean War veteran returning back to his job as a train engineer. Here he meets the sexy Vicki (Grahame), the young tantalizing wife of Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford), a railroad stationmaster.  Carl is soon fired when he gets into an argument with his senior manager. Distressed, he wants Vicki to go to old family friend, and influential businessman John Owens, asking him to help get Carl his job back. Vicki is reluctant to do so; however, Carl, an alcoholic and wife abuser, forces her to go see him. Though Carl never flatly comes out and states it, he implies Vicki should do whatever it takes to entice Owens to help him get his job back. Upon her return, she flatly tells Carl he got back his job; however, he is now more concerned with why she was away so long and what happened between her and Owens. His out of control jealousy escalates into his physically beating Vicki up, forcing her to admit something went on between them.

dŽsirs humains     Carl’s jealousy continues to haunt him, pressuring Vicki to write a letter to Owens saying she would like to meet him at the train. At the arranged time, Carl drags Vicki to the station and directly to Owens compartment, where he stabs him to death in front of her. Escaping from the compartment turns out not to be so easy with a train conductor at one end and Jeff, off duty, at the other end of the car. Carl pushes Vicky to distract Jeff by flirting with him. They strike up a conversation becoming quickly attracted to each other. Before you can finish a cigarette, they are passionately lip locked.

Interviewed during the inquisition of the Owens murder, Jeff covers up for Vicki denying he saw her anywhere need the scene of the crime. They soon begin having an affair. Jeff sinks deeper and deeper into her alluring maze. He had a way out of Vicki’s web, if he wanted it. There is a nice girl Vera (Diane DeLaire), daughter of co-worker and friend Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan), who is attracted to him and tries to draw him into nice decent relationship; however, Jeff is already too deeply entwined in Vicki’s web of sex and deceit. Vicki will eventually attempt to charm Jeff into killing her good for nothing pig of a husband. She rationalizes Jeff, a former Korean War veteran, has already killed plenty of men so what’s one more, especially for a seductive beauty like her.

-Human Desire-gloria    Lang films are filled with outsiders, Hans Beckert in “M”, Eddie Graham in “You Only Live Once”, Christopher Cross in “Scarlet Street” and here you can add Jeff Warren and Vicki to the group. One wonders if Lang’s compassionate viewpoint for outsiders stems from his own background coming from troubled Europe to America?

Unfortunately, Glenn Ford is not an actor with much depth. He’s unable to convey any sense of tragedy. He is bland and comes across as too much the average nice guy. A more conflicted, morose actor, (Robert Mitchum?) would have added an extra layer that is lacking here. In Renoir’s “La Bete Humaine” Lantier (Jean Gabin), is certainly a more conflicted character than his American counterpart. He suffers with a family history of mental behavior driving him to murder. In Renoir’s film, there are no likeable people unlike Lang’s remake. On the other hand, Grahame give us one of the boldest performances in her career, a definite improvement over Simone Simon in Renoir’s film. Sexy, vulnerable, desperate and brassy, she is more damaged goods here than femme fatale, with hints that sometime in her past she may have been sexually abused. Grahame’s sexiness shines right from the first scene in the film where we first see her lying down on her bed, her legs up in the air, sexy and inviting. Watching her, you can’t really blame any man for getting weak in the knees. Broderick Crawford is down right nasty as the overly jealous husband and while he is good, his performance is a bit one noted.

dŽsirs humains    Renoir’s “La Bette Humane” was doubtlessly too dark and verboten for American audiences addicted to happy endings, which I believe to be the reason for the changes made between the leading character (Warren/Lantier) in the two versions. Besides the male protagonists, it is also significant how differently Vicki and Serverine meet their respective deaths. Vicki by her jealous husband and Serverine stabbed to death by Lantier.  “Human Desire” was also damaged by restrictions forced upon it by the production code. Zola’s novel and Renoir’s film contain bleaker more naturalistic endings than the unsatisfying ending Lang leaves us with.

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9 comments on “Human Desire (1954) Fritz Lang

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    Another problem is that this Lang film lacks the sexual tension of the superior Renoir film, and that (as you insightfully and comprehensively note) Glenn Ford is neither an actor of much depth, nor is the way his character is presented here as compelling as the sexual psychopath written and played by Jean Gabin. Of course the fact that this later version of Zola “cleaned up” the less wholesome aspects of the earlier film, also works to make it less interesting. I had read somewhere that Lang was extremely self-critical about the film, and admitted Renoir’s was far-better, saying in effect that he had a contract to fullfill, which included the elimination of any kind of sexual perversity.
    Truth be said, Lang, ever modest when it came to some of his own less favored work, was way too critical. Life on the railroad is well conveyed and some of the exterior sequences are superbly filmed. As the film is mostly shot at night, Lang again uses shadows to excelelnt effect, creating a sense of fatalistic passion, which basically hovers over the entire film.
    Again, a painstaking overview, story recapitulation and thematic discussion that is always informed with the typical stellar Twenty-Four Frames treatment.

  2. John Greco says:

    Sam – yeah, I think this role required more depth than Ford was capable of. It was a mismatch and probably had to do with the studio wanting to reunite the winning team of “The Big Heat” and not caring whether the actors were a good match for their roles. Certainly, Grahame did well. I liked the film though it could have been so much more without the code restrictions and another actor in the lead.

  3. R. D. Finch says:

    John, I saw this a few weeks ago and had pretty much the same reaction as you. Grahame was deliciously manipulative and evil. She was expert at this, and those feline poses where she’s sprawled in various positions are mighty suggestive. Lang was a master at suggesting sex. (A lot of it is suggested in this movie!) In an early scene in Grahame and Crawford’s bedroom, the twin beds are pushed together with a nightstand on either side; in a later scene after she is clearly denying him sex, the beds are apart with BOTH nightstands pushed together between them. Crawford played the brute he always played. And as you write, Ford simply lacked the passionate intensity to be believable–a clear case of miscasting. The cop-out (but I suppose necessary) ending was a letdown too. Not having seen the Renoir version, I can’t compare the two. I did see an interestingly dark and oppressive (although not terribly subtle) British TV movie based on this story called “Cruel Train” with, of all people, David Suchet (“Poirot”) in the Crawford part. Sam’s comment about the film’s sense of railroad life was most interesting. I found these semi-documentary parts fascinating, and after Grahame they made the strongest impressions of the movie on me.

    • John Greco says:

      I missed that visual point about the twin beds pushed together and then separated in another shot. It is those kind of subtle shots that make a film worth watching repeatedly. I agree with the railroad scenes. I am generally fascinated with RR movies. Have no idea why, but I love films set in trains, railroad stations, etc. Both Human Desire and La Bete Humaine open up with an excellent series of shots with the train roaring down the track.

  4. Dave says:

    John – This passage of your excellent piece pretty much sums up the main problem I saw with the film:

    “Unfortunately, Glenn Ford is not an actor with much depth, unable to convey any sense of tragedy. He is bland and comes across as too much the average nice guy. A more conflicted, morose actor, (Robert Mitchum?) would have added an extra layer lacking here.”

    And I hate to admit that, because I have always thought that Ford was great in Lang’s outstanding “The Big Heat.” But that same spark just isn’t present in this effort. Still, it’s definitely one that needs to be seen because as you point out, it has Gloria Grahame at the top of her game. And, for the most part, a lesser Lang is still superior to the efforts of many other directors! :)

    Love all these noir reviews!

    • John Greco says:

      Dave- yes Gloria is at the top of her game, she’s magnificent in the role, and true about Lang, like Hitchcock. Mediocre Lang is still be better than most others. Despite it flaws it is a good film.

  5. Judy says:

    I really enjoyed this review and all the comments – fascinated to hear from RD that there is a version with David Suchet! I’d like to see both the Lang and the Renoir movies – sometimes, reading your blog as well as Sam’s, Dave’s and RD’s, I wonder if I’ve ever seen anything, apart from the inside of a newspaper office. You are all opening up my horizons, and the noir reviews are great stuff.

  6. John Greco says:

    Judy- I was suprised about the David Suchet TV movie too. That was one that got by me. The Renoir film is the best of all versions, though as Dave mentions even if this is not top notch Fritz Lang it is still better than most others and Grahame is superbly wicked.

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