Human Desire (1954): The beast within

Human Desire (1954)

Fritz Lang’s Human Desire, made after The Big Heat (1953), brings together the two stars from that film, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, in a relentlessly sordid noir melodrama of lust, infidelity, murder, and deceit played out on a wide screen.

The screenplay by Alfred Hayes, who worked on Lang’s Clash By Night (1952), is based on Emil Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine, which was first adapted for the screen by Jean Renoir in 1938 in one of the major films of the French poetic realism cycle, and starred Jean Gabin and Simone Simon. The poetic realism cycle of the late 1930s in France is considered by some film scholars a precursor to American film noir, and the eroticism of the Renoir film makes the strongest case for such a connection. That said, I see that little is to be gained by comparing Lang’s picture with Renoir’s.  Each film is grounded in a different social milieu, and Lang’s effort is more deterministic as befits a late cycle American noir.

Human Desire (1954)

For the first five minutes of the picture Lang introduces his story using shots of a locomotive-powered inter-urban passenger train barrelling through a flat landscape and one last tunnel before it reaches the ordered tangle of converging and diverging tracks at its destination.  From the first frame the evocative musical score of Daniele Amfitheatrof  establishes both an echo of the train’s rumbling progress and a dark counterpoint that portends the dark drama that will follow in the diesel’s wake.  Lang brilliantly uses the train’s inexorable passage and the determinism of the rails that brook no turning back or detour: fate is laid out in hard steel, and the switches and way-lays are beyond the driver’s control – all he can do is slow or speed his progress along an ineluctable pre-ordained trajectory – and even then he has a schedule to stick to.

Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford), a returning Korean war vet is shown as the driver in fast cuts to the cabin of the speeding locomotive. This  montage of scenes establishes a parallel metaphor. Jeff as the train driver is essentially passive and has no control over the train’s path, and in his life he is also happy to go with the flow, not to think too much about where his headed or why.

When he hits town his stated ambition is to keep a steady job, go fishing, and take in a movie.  A decent young girl who has been waiting for him declares herself as the ‘right woman’ to share this life, but he is passive and makes no serious effort to deepen the relationship.  Trouble starts when he meets the wrong woman on a train, soon after a murder has been committed in an adjoining carriage. Enter the erotic Gloria Grahame, sexually available and looking for a drink, but she settles for a cigarette and a languorous kiss between strangers. She is married to an insanely jealous older man, whom she does not love. But can she love any man? She is damaged goods and desperately needs help to escape not only the confines of her marriage but destroy the terrible secret hold her husband has over her. Situation dire.  Is she a femme-fatale, or a woman so used and abused by men from a young age that she is forced to use her sexuality as a weapon just to survive?   She lies but she doesn’t lie, she tells the truth but not the whole truth, and not all at once.

Human Desire (1954)

Grahame’s performance is powerfully convincing and Broderick Crawford is solid as the husband, but Ford lets the team down badly – rarely is his lack of depth so visible and so damaging. The strength of the climax requires more than Ford is capable of and the drama is dissipated to the extent that he needs to show terror, contempt, or real anger.

Even with this significant weakness, Lang and his cameraman, Burnett Guffey, are unrelenting in their unblinking gaze on the dark underside of modern American life.  Lang does not flinch from showing the ugliness and malevolence in a world brightly lit and without visible shadows: a man has been murdered behind a closed train compartment door – cut to a close-up of another man’s hand holding a bloodied knife wiping the blood off by rubbing the blade on his suit.

9 thoughts on “Human Desire (1954): The beast within”

  1. This is not one of Lang’s better films, but it’s still vital for a number of reasons, and it boasts some striking visuals and excellent use of sound (two points you readily make in what appears to be a generally favorable review, despite the reservations–“a sordid noir melodrama of lust, infidelity, murder and deceit.”
    I was most fascinated to learn that the “poetic realism” of the film and its inherent “eroticism” was a precursor to American film noir and that the film is “more deterministic” as a result of it’s falling into a late release cycle (1952).
    The opening of Mr. D’Ambra’s review is superlative as he thrillingly relates the ‘locomotive sequence’ which is largely fueled by sound and music, and then segues into the entrances of Glenn Ford in a montage that serves as a “parallel metaphor.” Great stuff!
    The final paragraph, which stresses the “ugliness and malevolence” of the work, is as impressive as the opening.
    At the end of the day, I am pretty much on the same page with you on this film, and I thank you for this intelligent and thought-provoking revisitation.


  2. Hi! Tony,
    What a very detailed review,(of a film that I watched “unattentively” therefore, I must seek it out again to watch attentively! ) and a very interesting point you make: When it comes to comparing directors Renoir and Lang version(s)of Emil Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine.
    I have only watched Lang’s version only once?!? and that was on “The Box,” but when it comes to Renoir version, I have not had the “good fortune” of watching La Bete Humaine starring Jean Gabin and Simone Simon yet. Therefore, I must seek this film out “La Bete Humaine” too!

    Btw, Tony D’Ambra,
    You “won” that bet due to my “forgetfulness” (“slap self on head”) Oh!.. another thing!…Here wishes you and your family a very Merry Christmas! and a Happy New Year!
    Take care!
    dcd 😉


  3. Thanks for your comments Sam. You are right, I am decidedly hesitant about this Lang feature, even after discounting the weakness of Ford’s performance, and I can’t really pin down why… I think I will need to watch it again.

    Thanks as always DCD. I would definitely recommend Renoir’s version. As a fan of Bogart you will certainly find the persona of Jean Gabin fascinating. Thanks also for your kind seasonal greeting, and I too wish you and your family all the best for the festive season!


  4. Typo Correction:This is what I should have wrote: Here wishing you and your family a very Merry Christmas! and a Happy New Year!

    Btw, Tony, I think that the “La Bestia Umana” poster looks “darker” and more “noirish” than the La Bete Humaine poster that you posted a while back and featured actor Jean Gabin and actress Simone Simon.

    I feel the La Bete Humaine poster look more “romanticize,” but then again maybe I’am wrong.

    dcd 😉


  5. It is to my everlasting shame as a noir enthusiast and Fritz Lang fan that I have yet to see this. (I also like Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame a great deal.) For the unfortunate reason that I have been woefully unable to find a copy of this anywhere. Nevertheless, I skimmed through portions of your review, Tony, and it was quite exquisite, though I am greatly handicapped here, having never seen this film.


  6. Hi! Tony,
    Thanks!…a lot!…I was about to repost your TCM schedule on my blog because I changed my template the next thing I know a “hail” storm developed!:)
    I thought I was still on my blog! haha!…Do it only “snow” in “noirish’ cities?
    Take care!
    dcd 😉


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