Human Desire isn’t nearly as good as the previous year’s Fritz Lang, Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame collaboration, The Big Heat, but for what it’s worth, the film has a lot going for it. The main issue I had with it is Ford’s hollow performance. Typically he’s always on point, elevating the other actors whenever he shares a scene with them without chewing the scenery. His performance is really flat in Human Desire though. It seems like the studio threw the three of them together in an attempt to replicate the success of The Big Heat, but it just didn’t work as well this go around. Ford seems bored by the murder and seduction going on around him. Regardless, Grahame brings her trademark sultriness and Lang’s camerawork is darkly wonderful as always, making Human Desire an admirable noir.
Jeff Warren (Ford) returns from the Korean War straight back to his job pulling levers as a train engineer. There’s a fairly gritty presentation of life as a railroad worker here, one in which men have sleepovers and wear the same filthy overalls to work everyday. His coworker Carl (Broderick Crawford) is a drunk slob who manages to get himself canned for arguing with a manager named Owens. Desperate for his job back, he asks his wife Vicki (Grahame) to shake her hips at Owens and essentially do “whatever it takes.” A real classy guy, this Carl is. So classy that when her seduction is successful, he freaks out on her for sleeping with Owens (which is basically what he asked her to do).
Carl’s booze-fueled jealousy reaches a boiling point. In a viscerally brutal scene, he beats Vicki until she admits that she screwed Owens, then he forces her to write a letter arranging a meeting with him on a train. Owens shows up, and Carl stabs him to death in the train compartment while Vicki looks on. Carl’s plan seems to be working smoothly until he runs into Jeff, whose off duty, just riding the train home. To distract Jeff, Carl urges Vicki to flirt with him. Again, he’s pushing his old lady on another man, which is how he wound up with blood on his hands in the first place.
Within minutes, Jeff and Vicki are smashing their faces together. She’s not faking it either like she was with Owens, Jeff has Vicki smitten. Soon he’s caught up in Carl and Vicki’s web of lies and temptation, all while a girl-next-door type named Vera (Diane DeLaire) quietly waits in the wings, offering Jeff an out.
While Ford fills the shoes of the trademark Lang movie loser, he lacks the depth needed for this type of anguished role, Grahame brings the heat. She plays Vicki with an incredible sense of vulnerability and seductive manipulation – you don’t know whether to hold her or run like hell. Lang utilizes her sex appeal to the nth degree by having her pose in painfully suggestive poses a few times in the film. When we first meet her, she’s showing off her new nylons. It’s a real fan yourself type of moment.
Human Desire may be the most mediocre Fritz Lang film I’ve seen yet, but shit, mediocre Lang is better than most other directors’ best films any day of the week. It’s an Americanized version of the 1938 Jean Renoir film La Bete Humaine (aka The Human Beast), and from what I’ve heard that’s a much better film. I’ll have to check that one out soon, but until then, Human Desire made for a decent weekend afternoon watch.
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