sat 03/06/2023

DVD/Blu-ray: Human Desire | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: Human Desire

DVD/Blu-ray: Human Desire

Fritz Lang catches the noir train, a little late behind Zola and Renoir

Glenn Ford, outclassed by Gloria Grahame

In an interview with Fritz Lang towards the end of his life, he dismisses Human Desire as a film he was contractually obliged to make and for which he had no great fondness.

Certainly it isn’t his masterpiece, but it’s a lot more interesting than its director allows and worth revisiting in this restored reissue.

Made in 1954, two years after Lang’s American tour de force The Big Heat, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame are once again in front of his camera. This time Ford is the hero, Jeff Warren, returning from the war in Korea to his job as a train engineer riding the rails. Much is made of verité footage of engines and tracks, the everyday business of freight yards and the wide-open landscape. Jeff lodges with a friendly couple and indulges in a bit of flirtation with their daughter but it’s Grahame, cast to type as Vicki, a wounded femme fatale, all slinky in her heels and tight sweater, who catches his eye.

Human DesireVicki’s in a mess; her alcoholic husband (Broderick Crawford) begged her to save his job by pleading with his boss on his behalf, but then turned vicious when he realised that her success entailed sexual favours. The plot proceeds a little along the lines of Double Indemnity, clarity and morality hemmed in by the Hays Code era restrictions on what sins can be spoken and who must be punished. But that still leaves plenty of room for some superbly cynical dialogue – "all women are alike, they’ve just got different faces so the men can tell them apart”.  

For the script, very loosely adapted from Émile Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine (which had already been turned into a wonderfully gritty drama by Jean Renoir in 1938), Lang had turned to the screenwriter Alfred Hayes. They had already collaborated on Clash by Night, another noir with a social realist setting. Watching Human Desire having recently discovered Hayes’s extraordinarily bitter and brilliantly written novels set in post-war Italy and Hollywood (I’d recommend starting with My Face for The World to See), it’s fascinating to see Vicki’s character through Hayes’s eyes. Is she a serial victim of abusive men, trapped into desperate actions in a misogynistic society, or simply a duplicitous minx? There’s an ambiguity about Grahame’s performance and some faint hints of Hayes and Lang’s shifting sympathies to make Human Desire a classic condundrum for feminist film theorist arguments. For everyone else, it’s a chance to admire men being both lascivious and vicious and for train fans, a  lot of rails to ride and throbbing engines to enjoy. 

This re-release comes with the original sensationalist trailer (“ She Was Born to Be Bad, To Be Kissed and To Be Trouble!”). The only other extra is a flatly filmed analysis by veteran critic Tony Rayns, who has some interesting points to make on the Zola/Jean Renoir connections. Lang completists and admirers of Gloria Grahame and Alfred Hayes will find much to enjoy.

A wounded femme fatale, all slinky in her heels and tight sweater


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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