ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Human Desire (1954) dir: Fritz Lang Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)
Murder on a train
This adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel La Bête humaine focuses on three characters whose lives become intertwined via the act of murder. Glenn Ford plays Jeff Warren, a Korean War veteran who returns to both his hometown and his old job working as a railroad engineer. With the help of his colleague Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan) and the latter’s family, he attempts to settle back into a quiet life where the greatest local excitement comes in the form of trips to the movies.
Broderick Crawford plays Carl Buckley, one of Jeff’s co-workers who has just been laid off due to a perceived mistake at the train yard. He gets his sultry young wife Vicki (Gloria Grahame) to persuade the railroad company’s owner, John Owens (Grandon Rhodes), to rehire him. However, the troubles start when she arrives back suspiciously late, leading Carl - a violent alcoholic - to believe that she has been carrying on with him behind his back. After subjecting her to a brutal beating, he pressures her into arranging a meeting with him aboard one of the company’s trains so that he can avail himself with a suitable opportunity to murder him.
He succeeds in killing John in his compartment and the pair leave the scene and sneak down the train aisle. On their way, they spot Jeff. Since Carl doesn’t want to draw his colleague’s attention, he sends Vicki out to distract him. However, this adds a complex dimension to the tale when Jeff immediately falls in love with her.
Watch a trailer:
Glenn and Gloria - together again
After the success of the previous year’s The Big Heat, director Fritz Lang reunited its two main stars, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, for another film noir in she shape of Human Desire. It wasn’t as well received as the previous film and has subsequently gone down as one of the more minor entries in Lang’s filmography. However, it is no less interesting for that.
While the story’s path is ultimately fairly predictable, it works well thanks to both Fritz Lang’s cinematic flair and the effective manner in which the characters’ motivations are handled right up to the film’s conclusion. The opening POV train journey kicks off the proceedings in a suitably dramatic fashion; a lengthy, wordless beginning which fully puts us into the mindset of a man who has just come back from a long, gruelling time away from home and is looking forward to returning to his normal small town world. The later murder sequence and surrounding suspense - this time taking place in the train’s claustrophobic interior - makes smart use of such economical imagery as a knife being wiped clean on a jacket and a puff of cigarette smoke being visible behind a carriage door window. It also goes without saying that there is also abundant use made of Lang’s patented chiaroscuro lighting style, which gradually becomes ever darker along with the story.
The ambiguous characterisations keep us involved from start to finish. Okay, so Broderick Crawford’s convincingly intimidating drunken bully is quite irredeemable as a human being. However, screen siren Gloria Grahame’s Vicki (who is introduced via a subtly erotic shot of her legs pointed upwards while she lies on the bed) pulls us back and forth throughout between sympathy at her plight and suspicion that she’s a more cunning beast than she lets on. The more restrained Glenn Ford, meanwhile, keeps us wondering whether his inherently decent protagonist’s violent past as a soldier has made him capable of perpetrating darker acts. Further down the cast list, Peggy Maley is great in her one and only scene as Vicki’s brassy best friend Jean. She snagged herself some of the film’s finest lines, such as “It's much better to have good looks than brains because most of the men I know can see much better than they can think.”
All of this is not to say that Human Desire is a flawless film by any means. The character of Ellen (Kathleen Case) is introduced as a wholesome “nice girl” type who is hopelessly smitten with Ford’s Jeff. Unfortunately, while Case herself is adequate in the role, the subplot itself is never really resolved in a wholehearted manner - most likely because it amounts to nothing more than a fairly uninteresting sideshow to the meatier central drama. There are also a couple of abrupt jumps in the soundtrack which may pinpoint to there being scenes which were removed by the censor shortly prior to release. Nonetheless, as with Ministry of Fear (1944), even second or third tier Lang can be a lot more interesting than long-standing critical consensuses may imply. Well worth a look.
Runtime: 91 mins
Dir: Fritz Lang
Script: Alfred Hayes, based on a novel by Émile Zola
Starring: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford, Edgar Buchanan, Kathleen Case, Peggy Maley, Diane DeLaire, Grandon Rhodes
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The images here are very sharp with great detail and contrast, the only exceptions being a handful of the darker train exterior shots. In terms of sound, everything is pristine and clear.
Interview with Tony Rayns
Film writer and festival programmer Rayns examines Lang’s Human Desire in his usual literate and well-researched manner. He delves extensively into the film’s production history and a few of the talents who were involved.
Although credited as an adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel La Bête humaine, it was actually more of a direct remake of French writer-director Jean Renoir’s film adaptation which, in itself, kept the central premise but removed a lot of subplots and altered the ending. Jerry Wald, who was then the vice president of Columbia, loved Renoir’s version and wanted to remake it for American audiences. However, since the studio only owned the rights to the original novel and didn’t want to pay Renoir any royalties, he simply declined to mention the latter’s name on the credits. One major difference between these two film adaptations is the nature of the central protagonist. In Renoir’s version the character had psychopathic tendencies. Since this would have proven taboo in the Hollywood Production Code era, he was changed to be more of a clean-cut all-American type played by Glenn Ford.
Wald had originally intended Human Desire to be a vehicle for reuniting Ford with actress Rita Hayworth since they previously had great success together as an onscreen couple in Gilda (1946). Unfortunately, circumstances dictated otherwise. Since the privatised American railway companies collectively refused to have anything to do with a film which showed a passenger being put at risk of being murdered on one of their trains, the production was relocated to Canada. This proved to be problematic for Hayworth at the time because she was undergoing divorce proceedings with her then-husband Prince Aly Khan and was under a legal injunction not to leave the country. As a result, her role went instead to Gloria Grahame, who had also previously worked with Ford on The Big Heat. Ironically, it turned out that one Columbia executive was ultimately able to pull strings to get the film shot in the USA because he owned significant shares in one small railway company.
In another entirely separate irony, the film proved to be particularly popular in France despite the fact that it was basically an uncredited remake of Jean Renoir’s version of the novel. One of the most notable critics to give the film the thumbs-up was a certain François Truffaut.
A collector’s booklet and trailer round out the extras here.
Human Desire is an underrated entry in Fritz Lang’s filmography and comes highly recommended to film noir fans. There aren’t too many extras here but the Tony Rayn’s interview is certainly worth half an hour of your time.