Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Alfred Hayes, (adapted from the novel by Emile Zola)
Starring: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford,
Duration: 91 min
BBFC Certification: PG
A remake of an earlier work, La bête humaine (1938) by European filmmaker Jean Renoir, (based on a novel by Emile Zola) Human Desire (1954) is a significantly underrated film-noir from director Fritz Lang. Joining two of the stars from Fritz Lang’s previous years work, The Big Heat (1953), Human Desire is in my opinion equally worthy of the acclaim despite not always being recognised so fondly by the critics.
As a fan of film-noir, this film did not disappoint. In many ways it encompassed the idea of film-noir with its bleak and gloomy depiction of deception, corruption of power and gender politics. The photography, set and lighting, is also typical of film-noir conventions. However, unlike some traditional film-noir, there is still that glimmer of hope. Whether this was purely derived from a constraint set by Columbia Studio’s at a time where the ‘Great Depression’ was starting to cease and times were beginning to become more prosperous, or just down to Lang’s own obsession of fate and destiny, the more optimistic ending fitted despite being vastly different to Renoirs original film.
Human Desire follows the story of war veteran Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) who returns from Korea to resume his old life on the railways. The opening of the film gives the viewer an almost documentary insight into the railways. We are transported to the train where we acknowledge signals and points being changed, as we ride alongside Warren in his journey home across bridges and through countryside before eventually arriving at his destination. But even then, the documentation of the railways continues as various sheds and tools are exposed in Warren’s walk from the driving car, and out of the railway yard. Lang uses this time to give the audience an insight into Warren’s character and the social side of working-class comradery.
After a brief encounter with a beautiful woman (Gloria Grahame) on a late train, Warren becomes entangled in a web of deceit and discovers that the femme fatal is Vicki Buckley, wife of the railway yard manager Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford).
Whilst an early suspicion following the discovery of a body on the train the night Warren met Vicki Buckley, should have been a warning sign of things to come, Warren allows himself to be led further and further into the lies and consequences of not speaking up in court. Vicki Buckley’s explanations seem plausible, but after asking her to leave her husband on many occasions and the femme fatal refusing, Warren still continues the elicit affaire against his better judgement.
As the narrative progresses, the suspense mounts until finally, Warren is faced with no alternative. To keep the girl, he must be prepared to commit murder. Should he do it? Can he do it? Will human desire take the upper hand?
Screenwriter Alfred Hayes does an amazing job of adding real depth to the main characters in this film. As a classic film-noir, we already know how events are likely to turn out, but despite this, Hayes draws us into the characters. They are like lost friends whom we would love to guide out of the unfortunate situations they find themselves. Unlike the classic femme fatal, Vicki Buckley is warm hearted and sincere in her own mind, a victim of circumstance rather than intensely evil. Warren is the average Joe, working a job he loves and in search of the girl of his dreams to make his life complete. We can emphasise with these characters which is why we ultimately care what might happen to them.
This brings me to another great aspect of this film, its cast. Although Lang’s first choice for leading lady in this film was actually Rita Hayworth, I think it was a blessing that lesser known actress Gloria Grahame finally took on the part. She gives a brilliant performance as Vicki Buckley, a sad victim of external factors that have shaped her meaningless life. Whether her motives are right or wrong, I find myself feeling great empathy for her character and believe that although Hayes writing has a big part in this, ultimately it is Grahame’s performance that draws you in.
Glenn Ford’s performance as Jeff Warren is equally well delivered. We can feel his pain as he wrestles with the moral dilemmas placed before him. Although the character lacks a more developed back story than Vicki Buckley, Ford easily convinces us that this is just an average ‘Joe Bloggs’, from a working-class background, looking for the perfect life. But as the plot develops, Ford can equally convince us of Warren’s struggles with morality.
Also worthy of a mention is Broderick Crawford as the jealous, drunk, abusive and controlling husband, Carl Buckley. Again, Hayes script supports this role significantly, but Crawford’s realistic representation of Buckley helps deliver the different stages of his characters unveiling. As Buckley’s darker side becomes more apparent, our loathing of him increases in parallel. A tribute to Crawford’s portrayal and acting skills. If delivered by another actor this part could easily have become more abrupt, less gradual and more over the top.
Whilst the cinematography of Burnett Guffey is perhaps not as ground breaking and distinctive as his earlier work for Columbia Studio’s on Joseph H Lewis’s So Dark the Night (1946), it follows the typical film noir conventions of light contrasting dark. Shots of the dimly lit, harsh lines in the railyard almost mirror the unforgiving and desolate lives of its main characters. And let’s not forget that memorizing opening scene aboard the train shot at the front to give the illusion of the audience experiencing the journey first hand.
This version also comes with a brilliant little interview with film historian Tony Rayns. The interview gives some further insight into the making of the film as well as an interesting comparison to Jean Renoir’s, La bête humaine (1938). Great viewing if you have an interest in the origins of Lang’s version of Emile Zola’s novel.
With its more optimistic ending (compared to other film-noir) I can understand why Human Desire might not have cut it amongst some critics, however in my opinion this is another great offering from Fritz Lang. With a great host of actors and a brilliant script by Alfred Hayes and add to this the seasoned cinematography of Burnett Guffey and you have a great film with sustained suspense throughout. Definitely worth a watch even if you’re not a film-noir fan.
Human Desire is released on Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment and includes the following special features:
• 1080p presentation on Blu-ray (with a progressive encode on the DVD)
• LPCM Mono audio
• Optional English SDH subtitles
• A new and exclusive interview with film historian Tony Rayns
• PLUS: A 40-PAGE collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by film historian Travis Crawford, critic and author Richard Combs, and writer Adam Batty, alongside rare archival imagery.