Human Desire Blu-ray Review: Excellent Film Noir from Fritz Lang

Coming off the heels of their definitive film noir The Big Heat (1953), director Friz Lang once again teamed up with actors Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame for Human Desire. It wasn’t as successful as The Big Heat (either commercially or artistically) but as this new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber proves it is definitely worth a watch.

Loosely based upon the novel La Bête Humaine by Emile Zola (which was also adapted by Jean Renoir in 1938), Human Desire follows Jeff Warren (Ford) as he tries to navigate life after returning from fighting in the Korean War. He gets his old job back as a train engineer and rents his old room in coworker Alec Simmon’s (Edgar Buchanan) home. Alec’s daughter Ellen (Kathleen Case) has grown up and matured since Jeff left home and she’s very clearly in love with him. Jeff says he wants to settle down with a career, a home, and a family, but his actions prove otherwise.

Late one night as a passenger on a train, he meets Vicki Buckley (Graham). She says she can’t sleep and wants a drink. When they can’t find one, she settles for a cigarette. She’s sultry and inviting, but when Jeff grabs her for a kiss, she runs away. But it is the kind of moment that makes Jeff smile. He’ll remember it forever.

What he doesn’t know is that Vicki’s husband, Carl (Broderick Crawford), has just been in a different train car killing a man. Carl is a jealous man and a bit of a drunk. He got himself convinced that she was having an affair with another man, forced her to write that man a letter asking him to meet her on the train, and then stabbed him to death when he arrived. Vicki was intentionally distracting Jeff so that Carl could get away without being seen.

Knowing that Jeff was on the train when the murder happened, he is asked to testify in court about it. Everyone aboard the train is in the courtroom and he’s asked if he saw anyone on or near the car around the time of the murder. Vicki’s charms worked so well that he omits the fact that he saw her there and thus begins our film-noir treachery.

Jeff and Vicki begin a torrid affair. Vicki explains away why she was in that train car that night and lays on various stories about how jealous and abusive her husband is. He’s also holding that letter she wrote as blackmail so that if she leaves him, he’ll turn it into the cops making her look guilty of the murder. It all leads up to her asking Jeff to kill Carl so that they can run away together and be free.

This is all really good stuff. Setting the story around a train yard is fantastic. Trains are constantly moving and making loud noises, which makes it both visually and audibly interesting. The lights on the train create a continual movement of shadows. They are a constant reminder that these characters either want to be or should be on the run. Everything is transitory.

Gloria Grahame is perfect as the femme fatale. She’s tough and sultry, but also vulnerable. It is a testament to her performance that we’re never quite sure how sincere she is up until the end. You never quite know if she truly feels threatened by Carl and wants out, if she’s in love with Jeff or just using him for her own means.

While watching the film, I kept thinking that Glenn Ford never seems quite capable of making Jeff the rube the script seems to want him to be. I can’t believe he’d kill a man in cold blood. There is a moral center to that character that someone like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity just doesn’t have. Sorry to spoil a nearly 70-year-old movie, but in the end, he doesn’t go through with it. The film makes good use of creating a difference between killing a soldier in war and killing someone walking down the street.

Surprisingly for a noir, the film ends relatively happily. There’s even a hint that he’ll wind up with Ellen, which is both the ending I secretly wanted and kind of disappointing. Film noirs shouldn’t end in happiness.

Extras for this special edition from Kino Lorber includes a lovely interview with Emily Mortimer who expresses her great love for Human Desire, and a theatrical trailer.

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Mat Brewster

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