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.