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Human Desire [DVD]
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Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) needs the intervention of his beautiful wife Vicki (Gloria Grahame) to keep his job, so Vicki meets with Carl's boss, Owens, and Carl's job is secured. Insanely jealous, Carl finds Vicki with Owens on board a train, he brutally beats her and kills Owens. Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) an off-duty train engineer, protects Vicki and they begin an affair. Still obsessively jealous, Carl turns to drink and blackmails Vicki into staying with him. Vicki then comes up with a plan for Jeff to dispose of her violent husband.....
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The plot revolves around a love triangle axis involving Jeff Warren (Ford), Vicki Buckley (Grahame) and Carl Buckley (Crawford). Crawford's Railroad Marshall gets fired and asks his wife, Viki, to sweet talk one of the yards main investors, John Owens (Grandon Rhodes), into pressuring his yard boss into giving him his job back. But there is a history there, and Carl is beset with jealousy when Viki is away for far too long. It's his jealousy that will start the downward spiral of events that will change their lives forever, with Jeff firmly in the middle of the storm.
The Production Code of the time ensured that Fritz Lang's take on the Zola novel would be considerably toned down. Thus some of the sex and violence aspects in the narrative give way to suggestion or aftermath. However, for although it may not be in the top tier of Lang's works, it's still an involving and intriguing picture seeping with film noir attributes. It features a couple of wretched characters living a bleak existence, what hope there is is in short supply and pleasures are futile, stymied by jealousy and murder. Thrust in to the middle of such hopelessness is the bastion of good and pure honesty, Jeff Warren, fresh from serving his country in the Korean War. Lusted after by the sweet daughter of his friend and landlord (Kathleen Case and Edgar Buchanan respectively), Jeff, back in employment at the rail yard, has it all going for him. But as the title suggests, human beings are at times at the mercy of their desires, and it's here where Lang enjoys pitting his three main characters against their respective fates. All set to the backdrop of a cold rail yard and the trains that work out of that steely working class place (Guffey's photography in sync with desolation of location and the characters collision course of fate).
Featuring two of the principal cast from The Big Heat (1953), it's a very well casted picture. Grahame is a revelation as the amoral wife stung by unfulfillment, sleazy yet sexy, Grahame makes Vicki both alluring and sympathetic. Lang had wanted Rita Hayworth for the role, but a child custody case prevented her from leaving the country (much of the film was shot in Canada), so in came Grahame and film noir got another classic femme fatale. Ford could play an everyman in his sleep, so this was an easy role for him to fill, but that's taking nothing away from the quality of his performance, because he's the cooling glue holding the film together. Crawford offers up another in his line of hulking brutes, with this one pitiful as he has anger issues that take a hold, his original crime being only that he wants to desperately please his uncaring wife. Strong support comes from Buchanan, Case and Diane DeLaire.
Adultery, jealousy, murder and passion dwells within Human Desire, a highly accomplished piece of film noir from the gifted Fritz Lang. 7.5/10
As for the movie itself, not exactly one of Fritz Lang's masterpieces but it surely has its own potency and suspense. Apart from that, what makes the film worth seeing is the presence of Hollywood legends such as Gloria Grahame, a fatal spider woman prototype, and Glenn Ford reminding at times of Jack Nicholson in ''The postman always rings twice''.
Lang, via Alfred Hayes’ screenplay, chose to (effectively) split Zola’s original Jacques Lantier character between the Buckley and Warren characters, the former suffering Lantier’s inherited violent tendencies, whilst Warren assumes the role of 'the wife’s’ lover. This has the effect of making the film’s denouement a little less interesting, though Warren’s conflict of killing in cold blood vs. killing in a war situation (as a vet) adds another dimension. The film’s noir credentials are accentuated by potential comparisons with Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Double Indemnity, as we get a train-related murder and identity concealed behind an open door, though Lang’s central pairing of Grahame and Ford are not in the same league as Stanwyck and MacMurray (IMHO). That said, Lang maintains a good sense of tension and moodiness throughout, qualities enhanced on-screen by a handful of trademark visual sequences, such as that where Warren and Vicki meet alongside a steam-engulfed train, a shadowy Vicki wandering downstairs into the basement and a resigned, fated Carl walking into shot past Warren. Such visual highlights are, alas, relatively few and far between and Human Desire not only falls short of Lang’s most lauded German works, but even his most impressive Hollywood films such as The Big Heat (which paired Grahame and Ford more impressively), Fury and You Only Live Once. I also have a preference for Jean Renoir's interpretation of the Zola novel.
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