The next Blast From the Past is a look at one of my most popular post over the years. Written in 2009 this article takes a look at one of cinema’s greatest vixens, Gloria Grahame.
By 1953, Fritz Lang’s career was a rocky road forced to make small studio or independent films one after another. He also spent the last few years clearing himself of accusations, made by the House of Un-American Activities, he was a communist. By the time he signed with second tier Columbia studio the commie accusations had been cleared and Lang was heading toward the final phase of his career in America before heading back to the homeland, Germany.
With Glenn Ford, a poor man’s James Stewart, in the lead, Lang was still floating in less than grade A film waters. At this point in his career Ford was mostly making programmers or second features, films like “Plunder in the Sun,” “Time Bomb,” “The Redhead and the Cowboy,” “Framed” and “The Undercover Man” with the occasional more expensive production added in (“Gilda”). Quality varied, some were good, some not, most as mentioned were not “big” pictures. Columbia did not consider, “The Big Heat,” a major motion picture.
“The Big Heat” is based on a serialized, in the Saturday Evening Post, novel by William P. McGivern, a novelist (Odds Against Tomorrow, Rogue Cop and Shield for Murder), screenwriter (The Wrecking Crew, Brannigan) and TV writer (Kojack, Adam-12, Banyon) with a screenplay by Sidney Bohem (Side Street, Union Station, Violent Saturday). Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thursday is an all day Gloria Grahame marathon on TCM starting at 6AM with Blonde Fever. Other films inlcude Crossfire, A Woman’s Secret, The Bad and the Beautiful, Chandler, In a Lonely Place and The Big Heat.
It is going to be one hot night!
Check out Movie Morlocks! They have been doing a series of five articles on my favorite femme fatale. Click here to get there.
Attached here is my own little tribute that I did a while back.
Femme Fatale – a woman who is considered dangerous alluring or seductive, a fatal woman who leads men to destruction.
Who fits the description of femme fatale better than Gloria Grahame? Just watch the way she enters a scene, no matter where she is, her eyes never leave the bedroom. Sultry, pouty lips and shapely legs, Grahame was not the girl next door unless you lived in a neighborhood filled with dark rain drenched mean streets, dramatic lighting and women who carried a gat strapped to their thigh. Though she generally played a loose woman, unfaithful wife or gun moll she brought a sensitivity and intelligence to her roles that went beyond the stereotypical dimensions usually associated with these kind of parts. In reel life and in real life, Gloria Grahame lived close to the edge. You don’t get much more on the edge than sleeping with your teenage stepson and eventually marrying him after divorcing dad.
Sexual heat just poured out of Gloria on film, even the titles of her films sizzled, “Naked Alibi,” “Blonde Fever,” “Human Desire,” “The Big Heat,” “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Roughshod,” to name a few. Even in the perennial family Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Gloria still was the town tramp, Violet Bick, dancing for a dime with men, and maybe doing more, generally being the anti Donna Reed.
Despite an Oscar winning performance as the over sexed wife of screenwriter Dick Powell in “The Bad and the Beautiful,” Grahame’s best performances were arguably in “In a Lonely Place” and “The Big Heat.” She co-starred opposite Humphrey Bogart, in her then husband Nicholas Rays’ classic noir where she gives an amazing performance filled with paranoia, lust and distrust. We watch her relationship with screenwriter and possible murderer Dixon Steele (Bogart) crumble before our eyes as she first believes him to be innocent, then begins to suspect he may have been involved in the murder of a young girl. Vincent Curcio states in his Grahame biography, “Suicide Blonde,” that Ray continually rewrote the script changing it to correspond to his version of their decaying marriage. In Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat,” Grahame is Lee Marvin’s narcissistic mirror loving gun moll who is brutally punished when he tosses scalding coffee on her face for talking to cop Glenn Ford. Disfigured, branded an informer, she eventually gets her revenge by throwing hot coffee back in Marvin’s face. Then there were the roles that got away, two roles in particular were due to Howard Hughes refusal to loan her out to other studios. She would have been wonderful in the role eventually played by Shelley Winters in “A Place in the Sun,” and it would have been fascinating to see her in the comical role played by Judy Holuday if she had been allowed to take the part in “Born Yesterday.”
Like her character, in “The Big Heat,” Grahame was obsessed with her looks, never seeing herself as truly beautiful. According Curcio in his biography, Gloria had much cosmetic work done on her face, mostly around the lip area (she often use to stuff cotton under her upper lip hoping to straighten it out). She was always unsatisfied with the way she looked. Though she continued to work until the 1980’s, the 1950’s was Grahame’s decade. Her best and most memorable work came in those ten years. Part of the reason for her decline is certainly attributable to her 1960 marriage to her former stepson Tony Ray, Nick Ray’s son by a previous marriage. She was 36 and Tony was 23. The marriage lasted 15 years and Gloria gave birth to two boys during the marriage. The mind-boggling relationships that developed out of all this became fodder for the news media of the day and took its toll on Gloria’s career. Tony Ray would later on become a well-known actor, Assistant Director and Producer. Most of her post 1950’s work was beneath her talent, though she did make a few memorable appearances in films likes “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Melvin and Howard” and the TV mini series “Rich Man, Poor Man.” Much of her work though was on TV in shows like “Mannix,” “Then Came Bronson,” “Kojak,” “The Fugitive,” “The Outer Limits” and some low-budget films like “The Todd Killings” and “Mama’s Dirty Girls.”
Gloria never became a major star though she was a major supporting player, always wanted by some of Hollywood’s best directors including Fred Zinnemann, Robert Wise, Frank Capra, Edward Dmytryk, Elia Kazan, Vincent Minnelli, Fritz Lang and of course Nick Ray. Gloria Grahame died in 1981; she was only 57 years old.
Below is a list of her essential works.
1946 – It’s a Wonderful Life
1948 – Crossfire
1950 – In a Lonely Place
1952 – Sudden Fear
1952 – The Bad and the Beautiful
1953 – Man on a Tightrope
1953 – The Big Heat
1954 – Human Desire
1954 – Naked Alibi
1955 – Oklahoma
1959 – Odds Against Tomorrow
Upcoming Gloria Grahame films on TCM
Oklahoma April 19th 3PM
Human Desire June 8th 8:30AM
In Human Desire with Glenn Ford
Sultry with Sterling Hayden in Naked Alibi
Fatal in A Woman’s Secret
Publicity stills with Glenn Ford in The Big Heat
On the cover of Life Magazine
Posters and Lobby Cards