Directed by: Fritz Lang.
Written by: Alfred Hayes based on the novel by Émile Zola.
Starring: Glenn Ford (Jeff Warren), Gloria Grahame (Vicki Buckley), Broderick Crawford (Carl Buckley), Edgar Buchanan (Alec Simmons), Kathleen Case (Ellen Simmons), Peggy Maley (Jean), Diane DeLaire (Vera Simmons), Grandon Rhodes (John Owens).
Fritz Lang reteamed with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame a year after the trio made one of the best film noirs in history with The Big Heat, to make another great noir, Human Desire in 1954. This film’s reputation is nowhere near as great as The Big Heat, which could be due to a number of reasons. One is that the ending of Human Desire, while wholly appropriate to the story, doesn’t quite pack the same thrill as the ending of The Big Heat. Another reason could be that Jean Renoir had already adapted Emile Zola’s highly regarded novel, La Bete Humaine, in 1938, and while Human Desire is a great film, Renoir’s film is a flat out masterpiece. But for whatever reason, Human Desire has never really been counted as one of Lang’s best films – not even one of his best American noirs – and that’s a shame, because it is a great movie.
The plot involves Jeff Warren (Ford), who has just come back from the Korean War, and wants nothing more than to return to his old job as a railroad engineer, meet a nice girl and settle down. The daughter of an associate, Vera (Diane DeLaire), pretty much throws herself at Ford, but he is hesitant. It isn’t that she isn’t beautiful, or even that she is the daughter of a friend, but more because he knew her as a kid, and he hasn’t quite gotten over that yet. Besides, there is another woman who has her eyes on Jeff. This is Vicki (Gloria Grahame), but she’s already married to the violent, jealous Carl (Broderick Crawford), who works for the same railroad. The two of them meet because Jeff is hitching a ride home on a late night train, that Vicki and Carl are also taking, but for more sinister reasons. Carl has just lost his job, and needs Vicki’s contact with a rich man to get it back. But Carl is not impressed when Vicki spends too much time with the rich man – deducing that more than talk went on. They are on the train so that Carl can take his revenge on the rich man – which he does. He then sends Vicki to distract Jeff, so that he can make it back to his compartment, before anyone catches him with the body. But when Jeff’s eyes meet Vicki, he is lost, and she knows it. She thinks that perhaps she has found her way out of an abusive marriage. After all, Jeff has killed before, in the army, so why would killing Carl be so different?
Lang’s best films exist in a moral grey area. Most films of the era have things in strictly black and white terms – these are the good guys, and these are the bad guys – but in Lang’s films, they get all messed up. His best film may well be M (1931), where a child murderer (Peter Lorre) is on the loose, and the corrupt police and politicians cannot stop him, so the underground does it for them. These are criminals and murderers themselves, but even they are disgusted by a child murderer in their midst. No one is innocent, but some just simply aren’t as bad as others. The same thing is at work in Human Desire. Jeff may be on shaky moral ground for killing in war (it depends on how you see war), but he certainly crosses a line when he begins an affair with Vicki. But will his morals allow him to go a step further, and kill Carl, who after all, is a murderer and a brute himself? While Vicki fits the mold of the femme fatale, she isn’t quite as evil as someone like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, who convinces innocent Fred MacMurray to kill her husband for her. After all, Vicki is an abused woman, who was drawn into the murder plot by her husband, and is now being kept by him through violence and cohesion. She isn’t innocent, but you can at least relate to her motives.
The performances certainly help to make the movie great. The whole movie is about the basest of human desires – lust and rage – and yet no one ever talks about either one. It all simmers just underneath the surface. Ford was never the most charismatic of actors – he more often than not was a little stiff and square – but Lang knew how to use him at his best, as he does here. That stiffness works for Jeff, who afterall, is supposed to be an everyman, undone by his desires. Broderick Crawford was an actor of enormous girth, but also the power to go along with it. We need little convincing that he is a brute. Best of all is Gloria Grahame, one of the most underrated of the actresses from the 1950s. To say her personal life was stormy would be an understatement – while married to director Nicholas Ray, she had an affair with his 13 year old son, who she later married (in total, she had four marriages). Yet on screen, in such films as In a Lonely Place (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Big Heat (1953) and here, she was pretty much perfect, playing damaged women, who draw the men in their lives to their doom.
Fritz Lang was one of the best, and most prolific, of all directors. His films are dark and unsettling and stick in your mind for long after they are finished. It is true that Jean Renoir’s La Bete Humaine, with Jean Gabin, is a better film than Human Desire, but that shouldn’t detract from what Lang and company achieved with this film – a masterful noir in its own right.