Human Desire (1954)
“She was born to be bad…to be kissed…to make trouble!”
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford
Synopsis: A Korean War vet returns to his job as a railroad engineer and becomes involved in a sordid affair with a co-worker’s wife and murder.
Human Desire is a great little noir from Fritz Lang, one of the genre’s best exponents. It’s minor Lang, for sure — his best days were now behind him — but it’s still a terrific tale of quiet desperation all the same. Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame are re-united with Lang after the previous year’s The Big Heat, and they work well together. Ford is a little bland at times, and it’s up to Grahame to keep the story moving, but she’s more than up to the job. She was a great actress, sadly under-rated, and you usually knew exactly where you were with her. Lang seems to play on that, here. When we first meet her character, Vicki Buckley, she is lying on her back with her legs in the air, and the insinuation is clear. Despite not being a particularly attractive woman — she was 31 when this was filmed, but she looks older; her eyes look tired, her face a little doughy, and her thin lips are concealed behind a vulgar mask of lipstick — Grahame (and her character) exudes an earthy sexiness that is almost accidental.
It is this quality that makes us think she is just another femme fatale, but she’s something more than that in this one. She is as much a victim — of drunken husband Broderick Crawford — as she is a villain, and her actions are as much out of self-preservation as they are wickedness. Her and Crawford’s relationship is one that is finely etched, and probably the most interesting aspect of the film. Little is said about the details of their relationship, but we can figure it out from the way they behave around one another. Vicki has settled — for whatever reason — while hubby Carl can’t help feeling she’s out of his league and is scared of losing her which is why he is so jealous. These weaknesses and insecurities help drive the film along, and Lang gets good measure out of them. Look at that mis-en-scene as Crawford is leaving their small apartment after they have argued: each of them seen through separate doorways, separated by a wall and rigid, unyielding lines.
The story gets under the skin of these two more than it does returning Korean War veteran Ford. His Jeff Warren is something of an ambiguous character for much of the film. He has a hot young woman after him, and yet he goes for the less alluring — and ostensibly unavailable — Vicki. But then I suppose it is this that is at the core of the story: the overwhelming intensity and perverse randomness of human desire.
(Reviewed 1st October 2007)