Director: Fritz Lang
Stars: Gloria Grahame, Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford
While the highest level of prestige and regard is still reserved for his silent German masterpieces (the thrilling M, the visionary Metropolis etc.), there’s a great deal to be said for Fritz Lang’s jobbing post-war work in the US, where he churned out some of the era’s most memorable genre pictures, from feminist western Rancho Notorious to noir classic The Big Heat. For me, this period of prodigious activity arguable reaches its peak with 1954’s Human Desire, which reconfigures an Emile Zola novel as a seedy rail-bound thrill ride.
While Glenn Ford takes the top credit as Korean war veteran turned train driver Jeff Warren, much of the first act of the picture is spent in the company of his brutish and downtrodden supervisor Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) who comes home one evening licking his wounds having lost his job for letting off a little too much steam to the bosses. His wife Vicki (Gloria Grahame) offers to smooth-talk the situation over with the unseen but hugely instrumental John Owens, in an effort to get Carl his job back. When she returns home – suspiciously delayed and more suspiciously successful – Carl smells a rat and a heated argument turns ugly and violent.
Jeff becomes part of the equation around half an hour into the picture, when – aboard a commuter train – he crosses paths with Vicki by happenstance. They share a brief encounter over cigarettes. It is only afterward that Jeff learns that John Owens is now The Late John Owens. Carl burns the man’s possessions in the furnace in the basement of their domestic abode (a fiery hell he has made for himself), while Vicki’s watchful presence seals the deal – she was her husband’s accomplice. Jeff looks the other way in court but, with an inexorable urge for self-destruction, can’t keep himself away from Mrs. Buckley.
“When it’s quiet, I get nervous,” Vicki muses ruefully while looking out over the neighbouring trainyard one night, talking with Jeff; a moment that feels as though it speaks to her nature, her addiction to torrid behaviours. A slave to the id. In Lang’s film, all men are inherently fallible (even when it comes to keeping buttons on their clothes), all men are dependent on women, and all men are committed to creating their own ruin. It’s an oily, sordid damnation of manhood, but Human Desire takes an almost equally dim view of women (Vicki’s manipulation of Jeff is shameless) making this one exceptionally misanthropic noir.
Sex is forever at the heart of Human Desire, either it’s want or it’s lack. Following the murder of Owens, we get a glimpse of the Buckley boudoir. It’s twin beds separated by drawers speak volumes. This isn’t a couple for whom chastity is a watchword. They are combatants in a standoff with all trust destroyed. The marriage is loveless and has become sexless. This lack – among other things – steers Vicki back to Jeff, whom she manipulates into aiding her retrieval of a letter Carl holds over her as leverage.
Broderick makes a great, burly schmo, lending pathos and character to Carl; a man who is otherwise monstrous. Meanwhile, the sexual chemistry between Ford and Grahame is palpable. Ford plays Jeff as smart but louche. He isn’t showy, just confident and wise (except where it counts). Grahame’s is the movie’s standout performance, however. While noir sometimes wrote women as simplistic villainesses (the staple femme fatale), there’s an evident complexity to Vicki that comes more from Grahame’s performance than from Alfred Hayes’ (capable and sometimes brilliant) script. Self-loathing, self-preservation and self-satisfaction all at war in her keening voice. Her foil in the film is Jeff’s literal girl-next-door Ellen (Kathleen Case), whose whimsy and seeming purity puts Vicki’s conflicted, complicated nature into swift relief.
Returning to Jeff, however, and there is perhaps more there than meets the eye. And a glimmer of hope for mankind. As the third act ramps into gear, Lang frames him lying on his bed, smoking cigarettes. Contemplative, but also a little lost. Ellen enters and starts talking about Jeff’s hopes and dreams; the things he said he wanted from life in the aftermath of war. In this scene – but coded throughout the film prior to this – is a sense of listlessness in Jeff. Through Ford’s character, Lang picks gently at a kind of post-war malaise. 1954 was the epicentre of America’s days of wealth and splendor. A land boasting of it’s own prosperity. But here’s Jeff and all his possibilities. And he’s tarnished and unhappy. Human Desire confronts a deep psychological contradiction that one might imagine playing out in a thousand other stories across an entire continent.
In spite of his lust, Jeff maintains his integrity in other matters (sex drives Human Desire, but the act itself is outside of the film’s damnation; the title says it all). When Vicki tries to coerce him into killing Carl to free her from his murderous pact, Jeff can’t go through with it because he maintains a moral compass in this regard. The film briefly opens up a discussion about wartime ethics, as Vicki struggles to understand how Jeff differentiates between murder for love and murder for your country.
I can see how Human Desire might seem anticlimactic to some. When Jeff stalks Carl across the railway yard, Lang gets to play with lines and shadow to hatch up the frame, and one assumes this is going to be the film’s dramatic crescendo. But instead Jeff’s inaction places us in an uneasy nowhere space. In the end, we’re left with something more difficult to reconcile. Carl and Vicki argue and violently tussle in a compartment aboard a train Jeff is driving. Is Jeff aware that they are even his passengers? It’s doubtful. And while this fight ends with Vicki falling to the floor with a scream, is she murdered? Are her actions therefore avenged by the wretch Carl? It’s unclear. She doesn’t get up, but Lang provides no particular answer, only clues in Carl’s tragic expression, which is intercut with Jeff’s amiable bliss as he drives the train, seemingly contented again that he has reconciled his own conscience and moved on from the entire episode.
The sequence leaves us sort of hanging. It isn’t dramatically inert, exactly, but there’s a nagging lack of resolution here. Of unprosecuted cruelty. Jeff’s very obliviousness feels like a statement on America‘s denial of it’s own unending violence. Railway workers clear the way as Jeff drives on through. Jeff waves to them. Out the window we can see the city of Trenton advertising it’s own industry. The music is… jaunty. The USA prospers all around, but through it Jeff drags a convoy in which hidden sins are carried. An unwitting courier of the underneath of society.
And that’s where Lang leaves us. Here, the words ‘The End’ provide little solace… Perhaps Lang’s greatest southpaw.