Monday 8 June 2009

Human Desire (1954)

Director: Fritz Lang
Stars: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford

I'll take any opportunity I can get to catch a Fritz Lang movie and this is one that isn't too easy to find. Luckily TCM sneaked it in amongst with a host of his films that are more frequently shown as part of their focus on directors in the month of June. Apparently he wanted Peter Lorre to play the lead character of Jeff Warren, but Lorre refused given how hard Lang had been on him during the filming of M no less than 23 years earlier in Germany. Curiously, like M, this one opens with a lot of sound but not much dialogue.

Warren is a railroad engineer who has just spent three years in the service in Korea. With Lorre's refusal, the part went to Glenn Ford, who to be honest looks more like a railroader and probably fits better for some of the romantic side of the role. That said, I'm a confirmed Peter Lorre fan and relish those odd parts he landed that fell outside the routine stuff; this would have been one of those. After leaving Korea, Warren comes back home to his old town, his old job and his old lodging with a colleague, Alec Simmons, who has a daughter. When Warren left she was a kid but now she's all grown up with a big crush. There years can be a long time.

Now Warren is only one of the three players in this story. The second is Carl Buckley, who works at the same train yard and the third is his wife Vicki. Buckley is good enough at his job to get promoted up to a position of responsibility but he's enough of a hothead to get fired when he gets argumentative with the yardmaster. He thinks up a way to get his job back though: his wife knows an important man called John Owens who has clout enough to pull the strings, so he asks her to make it so. She manages it too.

The catch is that when she does, using the sort of persuasion that women have used successfully for such ends for centuries, he gets all bent out of shape about it. So Owens ends up dead, murdered by the Buckleys with a knife in a train to Chicago. There's an inquiry of course, but nobody works it out except Warren, who was also on the train, catching a lift, and he met Vicki in the coach around the time of the murder. But this is no whodunit and this is where our story really starts. It's all about power.

Carl has power over Vicki because he keeps the note he made her write to Owens to get into his compartment. Warren has power over both of them because he knows precisely what they did. Vicki doesn't have power over anyone, except what she can build through being a young and attractive woman, one that the other key players are drawn to. And the tension and the anger and the frustration build, in the able hands not just of Fritz Lang but of the actors involved. Warren wants Vicki and Carl wants Vicki, but Vicki just wants her letter and out of this mess.

As much of a Lorre fan as I am, Glenn Ford is well cast as Jeff Warren and he does an good job as a decent man but one who can still happily try it on with his friend's wife. Gloria Grahame isn't quite as young and beautiful as I was expecting Vicki to be played but she's a desirable and feminine thing who is very believable in the part, manipulated throughout but able to do some manipulating of her own. This film reuinted Ford and Grahame with Lang, who they had starred for a year earlier in The Big Heat. Most obvious of the three is Broderick Crawford as Carl Buckley, a bluster of a man whose temper drives the whole thing.

The story comes from a novel by Emile Zola called La Bête Humaine or in translation The Human Animal, and it lives up to such a generic title because of the sheer span of emotion we run through. The central trio are drawn entirely in shades of grey, though the degrees are of course different. They all make bad decisions and are sucked through their own failings into worse ones. While there are no great revelations after the murder to shock us, we're kept hooked right up to the end to find out just where on that sliding grey scale each of these three characters are going to end up at.

While not a flashy film in the slightest, it's very solid indeed and it's still a real honeypot of a film, playing with our morals and sensibilities and keeping us guessing. Unfortunately Fritz Lang followed it up with a couple of lesser films, Moonfleet and While the City Sleeps, though I may be in a minority when it comes to regarding the latter as such, but he'd be back on top form two years later for Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. This one fills in a gap for me in Lang's filmography, but there are still too many gaps that I wish TCM would help me fill. Here's to hoping.

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