American film noir is not ostensibly the genre you may associate with German director Fritz Lang, known primarily to Western audiences for the chilling M and his hugely influential science-fiction epic Metropolis, but Human Desire is quite a fascinating late-stage slice of melodrama from the skilled auteur.
The picture updates an Emile Zola story previously lensed by another great director, Jean Renoir, for 1938 French film La Bete humaine, and sees Lang work for the second film in a row (after 1953’s The Big Heat) with one of his favourite actors, Glenn Ford, and alluring screen idol Gloria Grahame, for this tale of passion and murder. It’s a film which, for its time, manages to update the story with added relevance in the shadow of the Korean War while tapping age old narratives about lust, control and power.
Ford is war veteran now train engineer Jeff, who is welcomed back as an American hero following the difficult theatre in the East, and immediately falls passionately for train passenger Vicki, played by Grahame; a beautiful yet vulnerable woman at the mercy of her monstrous husband Carl (Broderick Crawford), who also happens to be Jeff’s railroad yard superior. It is a beguiling three-way problem – a woman caught between two men, who may be the manipulated or manipulator. Lang manages to present the moral conundrum at the heart of his story as key to the drama.
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Human Desire is a quiet tale, set in small town America, but it ripples with an undulating sense of sexual obsession and gender politics which has one eye firmly squared on the counter-cultural emancipation of women in the decades to come. Grahame fits the template of a beaten down moll from any number of hard boiled noir tales, or the pages of a Raymond Chandler, but Vicki if anything begins to corrupt and entrance Jeff. It is he who reaches a point of compromising his all-American morals and values as a war hero to ‘rescue’ her from the brute she’s married to.
In this, Lang paints quite a bleak picture, of marriage and obsession, and teases out the unspoken aspects of 50’s Americana as the country teeters on the edge of post-war social change. It is ultimately uncompromising and cold, with an ending that lacks the hope and justice you may be expecting. Lang doesn’t believe in happy endings with this kind of story, and if anything wants us to understand Human Desire as a cautionary tale. The good guys and bad guys of his story are not so easily drawn.
Alongside Eureka’s re-release of this film are some extras but despite the quality of the picture, bonus material is sadly quite scant. There is a lovely new BluRay encode which brings the film to life, and an informative interview on the movie with historian Tony Rayns, plus a collector’s booklet, but you wish there was archive footage with Lang or his stars discussing the picture, and a commentary track of some description would have been nice.
Nonetheless, as a fairly late-stage, hard boiled American noir, Human Desire is another fine Fritz Lang picture… even if it may leave you a little in despair about the human condition.
Human Desire is now available on DVD/BluRay from Eureka Entertainment.