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Friday Noir: Human Desire

Written by Alfred Hayes
Directed by Fritz Lang
U.S.A. 1954

Austrian-born filmmaker Fritz Lang is one of the rare auteurs to make headlines through film both in his native country and tongue as well as his adoptive ones. His Hollywood career saw no shortage of excellent pictures featuring wonderful casts, such as Scarlett Street (1945), Woman in the Window (1944), and Clash by Night (1952). Lang was one of the great contributors to what is now known as film noir, and according to many, his magnum opus is The Big Heat (1953). Following up on greatness is a tall order for anyone, even an artist as skilled as Lang. His 1954 drama, Human Desire, based on the Émile Zola book La bête humaine, brings back Big Heat’s two stars, Glenn Ford and Gloria Graham, as well some dubious moral ground for their characters to stand on, but can lighting strike twice?

Human Desire follows the serpentine love tribulations of one Jeff Warren (Ford), a recently returned Korean War veteran who earns a modest living by conducting a train with friend and colleague Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan). In fact, Jeff knows the Buckleys rather well as he rents a room from them whenever in town, not too mention that their beautiful daughter, Ellen (Kathleen Case), has eyes for him. Another co-worker for the company, Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford), after enduring much duress while on the clock, is suddenly fired after a row with his superior. He returns home to stay at home wife Vicki (Graham), whom he pleads for help. Vicki is an old acquaintance of a man who can give back Carl his job, and so a meeting is set up. All goes according to what Carl hoped for, save of course for when he learns that in order to land her hubby his post, she had to put in some ‘extra favours’. This sets a dangerous sequence of events in motion, starting with a fuming Carl who decides to murder his wife’s ‘friend’, as well as an eventful meeting between Jeff and Vicki that may change their lives forever

Writing about, reviewing, and analyzing a great cineaste’s work is a task to be broached with a degree of trepidation, in particular when said cineaste’s plaudits have already been as clearly established as Fritz Lang’s.  One simply doesn’t talk about a Kubrick, Spielberg, or Hitchock film. One must almost forcibly view it from within the prism of that director’s oeuvre. Whether that technique is the best one, an adequate one, or utter hogwash is a debate for another day, but suffice to say that that is generally what people do when tackling a legend’s work.

With that important caveat out of the way, it now feels safer to argue that Human Desire, while a solid film in its own right, does not land as strong a punch as some of Lang’s more immediately recognized works. The issues holding it back stem predominantly from a general sensation familiarity that handicaps the overall plot, compounded by a lack of gusto insofar as the murky moral waters the principle characters swim through. Honestly, even someone as brilliant as Lang, whose body of work stretched from the late 1910s into the 1960s, is not going to produce unequivocally sublime films with each and every single outing. It doesn’t help that at this point in time the director is coming off a picture, The Big Heat, widely acclaimed upon release and has since gone into film history as one of the major works of American cinema, let alone film noir. Any endeavour that follows such an accomplished work is bound to get lost in the shuffle provided it does not compare, which Human Desire does not. Nevertheless, arguing that Human Desire is not as good as The Big Heat is akin to arguing that Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film isn’t as good as the sequel; in no shape or form does the comment besmirch the first film’s reputation, it’s just that the sequel is near perfect.

Fair is fair however, and it proves difficult to shake the sinking feeling that the direction the plot takes is relatively obvious. No, Jeff won’t be wooed by Ellen despite that she’s a complete doll and sweetheart, he’ll be infatuated with Vicki in a blink of an eye. Their hot romance, all of which transpires behind Carl’s back, is predicated on longing for excitement on Jeff’s part and, with respect to Vicki, a desire to distance herself from Carl and maybe use Jeff to escape a complicated entanglement. Part of the issue is that the film never establishes Jeff very well. Ford is a good actor, putting in a decent performance here, but it’s unclear why he so quickly cuddles up with Vicki. Crime films of the era regularly have their protagonists seduced by dangerous dames, so in theory this is par for the course. Ah, but there’s that darned fact that this is a Fritz Lang film, and usually his set-ups are exquisite, with all the pieces falling perfectly into place for reasons the viewer easily understands. Human Desire lacks that virtuoso precision. It’s the only Fritz Lang picture I’ve watched where I couldn’t help but feel that things were motivations were because the script ordained them so.

Stemming from that first bit of negativity is a second handicap, that being how tamer the moral miasma is in Human Desire than in many of his other projects. Because the character-driven motivations are so much clearer and vibrant in many of Lang’s other pictures, Human Desire feels more like a decently engaging but run-of-the-mill noir in contrast.  Jeff is conned into a sexy fling with a seductress and said seductress, while legitimately thinking Jeff is sweet, is also probably trying to use his feelings to her benefit giving her husband’s draconian governorship of their marriage. It’s all…perfectly adequate.

Much of this review is likely giving the impression that Lang and company stumbled while making this movie. Not really. As previously stated, it’s tough to not like Glenn Ford (although he doesn’t hold a candle to certain other male actors who could really play up the noir victim with aplomb) and Gloria Graham is arguably at her most Graham-esque: pouty, sexy, with just enough of a light, angelic touch to make Jeff and the audience think she’s alright in her heart. Lang was a filmmaker very much in touch the complicated, multi-faceted driving forces behind human behaviour. Carl, the husband that comes off as quite a brute at times, is a good example. He beats Vicki on a couple of occasions in the film upon shedding light on her promiscuity, utterly inexcusable behaviour. Conversely, he’s also been having an extremely rough go at work, which is how he lost his job in the first place. As a much older man than Vicki, there is an underlying insecurity that guides many of his actions too. He does, however, appear as genuinely remorseful of his actions later in the picture, conscious that he hasn’t done right. In essence, he is far from a good man (the wife beating certainly doesn’t help his case in the slightest), but it’s still difficult to entirely dismiss him as garbage. The same goes for Vicki. She’s playing Carl behind his back. One supposes the old adage of fighting fire with fire applies, but that doesn’t make her a beacon of moral justice. What’s more, her promiscuity in the early goings suggests that this might not have been the first time she engaged in some side action, nor does her affair with Jeff, for that matter.

Many of the elements are present to result in a respectable romantic thriller, which is precisely what Human Desire is. It has some very good scenes, a vintage Gloria Graham performance, and dabbles in the infamous theme of humans behaving like dirty, rotten scoundrels. On the flip side, it does not rise itself above the fray in the film noir pantheon. Certainly among Lang’s films, it can’t close to several of his other efforts, German-language or American made. Fritz Lang completists will probably rejoice, but ultimately Human Desire is just a serviceable drama.

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