#8 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
I’m going to come to Human Desire‘s defense. The second cinematic adaptation of Emile Zola’s La Bete Humaine (the first was by Jean Renoir, another very good film in its own right), is a noir that Fritz Lang imbued with his wonderful visual style, but he never loses sight of the human aspect. Bosley Crowder at wrote in his contemporaneous review in The New York Times that “there isn’t a single character in it for whom it builds up the slightest sympathy,” and I disagree pretty heartily. This is a stylish film that does engage with me with complex characters, not cutouts or mere archetypes. This is Fritz Lang at one of his highs in the Hollywood system, telling a story that spoke to him, and making a film that is distinctly his all at once.
Jeff (Glenn Ford) comes home from three years fighting in the Korean War, returning to his job as a train engineer while crashing in the extra bedroom of his friend Alec (Edgar Buchanan) whose wife, Vera (Diane DeLaire), and daughter, Ellen (Kathleen Case), welcome him back into their lives warmly. His first night back, he picks up a shift to go into the city on a train that happens to also contain the recently fired assistant manager of the railworks Carl (Broderick Crawford) who is using his a connection of his wife, Vicki (Gloria Grahame), to try and get his job back after having blown up at his boss earlier that day. The precise connection between Vicki and John Owens (Grandon Rhodes) is unclear, but as soon as Carl gets what he wants, his suspicions about what the relationship could be flare up to the point where he beats Vicki into admitting that the relationship is something immoral. This leads him to force Vicki into a plot to murder Owens on the train going back, the train that Jeff also happens to be dead-heading back in as well.
A potential subtitle to the film could be: “The Creation of a Femme Fatale”. I think that Crowder found no one to sympathize with in the film because he rejected Vicki out of hand. I think he was viewing her in a more generically femme fatale way. Gloria Grahame’s Vicki is a tragic character. Lost in a world where no matter what she says about her relationship with Owens to anyone, no one will believe her. Married to a violent drunk who entraps her into staying with her by threatening her with the police and the one piece of evidence that ties her directly to Owens and the train, Vicki is a woman with nowhere to go. Into this situation walks Jeff. He saw her on the train leaving Owens’ cabin, but he doesn’t point her out at the inquest, letting her off scot-free with memories of a kiss he planted on her on the train when he thought she was just a young woman looking for companionship late at night.
Vicki is trapped. She is small in comparison to her imposing, older husband. She couldn’t win a physical fight, and into her life walks Jeff, a war veteran who’s killed men in service of his country. As their relationship develops and her situation with Carl gets more intolerable, she brings up the idea that Jeff could kill Carl. Is Vicki planning this from the moment she meets Jeff? Your answer were color your interpretation of her. If you think she’s that kind of woman who is instantly thinking of murder the moment that Jeff lets her off at the inquest, then yes, she’s awful. I don’t see her that way, and that has everything to do with Gloria Grahame. She’s great in The Big Heat, but she’s multifaceted here. I see pain, fear, and desperation, not conniving planning. She can’t escape on her own, and she tries to get help where she can. The trap she’s in isn’t exactly legal, so her paths out are limited. She can’t go to the police, so she finds another man to help. In a more generic film noir, Vicki would not have this kind of depth. The theatrical poster doesn’t really help, either, though.
She’s not the extent of the moral questions in the film, though. Jeff is being thrust into a situation where he meets a woman in a loveless marriage who seems to love him back. Does he save her? How far is he willing to go, especially when she tells him the details of what happened on the train, bringing him in as a potential accessory after the fact? Glenn Ford is solid in the role, giving Jeff enough reality emotionally to carry his part, but he ends up, despite the film’s official description I’ve seen in several places, essentially a secondary character in the film.
This film feels like Fritz Lang adapting European literature into his established American idiom confidently. The ending is also more purely something that Lang would have done in his German period, but it’s also confusingly assembled editorially so it’s hard to figure out exactly where the principal locations actually are, which dampens the effect a bit. There’s also a strong motif of older men getting together with younger women (there are four such couples in the film) that goes nowhere, making me wonder why the emphasis is so strongly there so early if it ends up just flittering away by the finale.
The focus on Vicki ends up feeling like, if this had been made and released today, it would be called a deconstruction of the film noir genre. She’s the cornerstone on which the film is built, and I think she’s a very strong cornerstone. The rest of the film shines because of her.