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Monday, 7 November 2011

Burl reviews Human Desire! (1954)



Ha ha, hello there! It’s Burl! Have I ever told you how much I appreciate the films of Fritz Lang? Probably! But have I told you how feverishly I enjoy the microgenre of train movies? I don’t think I have! I’ve always admired the great Runaway Train, and when I saw the fantastic John Frankenheimer movie The Train, I knew I had seen something special! Of course I really like train-set murder mysteries like Murder on the Orient Express or The Lady Vanishes, or even comedies like Silver Streak and The Darjeeling Limited, but I particularly like train movies where there’s tons of insider detail on the mechanics of running trains! The Frankenheimer picture is certainly like that!
And so is Human Desire, which you’ll be pleased to hear is a Fritz Lang train movie! In fact it’s a choo-choo noir, which is a great and natural combo, ha ha! It’s based on Émile Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine, but the story was changed around quite a bit! Instead of a psychotic woman-hating killer of ladies, the main character, played here by Glenn Ford, is now a fairly goody two-shoes Korean War veteran train engineer who becomes a typically noir-ish obsessive man-patsy weakling in the blink of an eye, and then towards the end returns to his earlier persona in another blink! Ha ha, they also remove the train crashes and multiple murders at the end, which is too bad! I’ll have to check out the Jean Renoir version to see if they stay truer to the book!
But this movie has plenty of its own virtues! It’s set mostly in and around the train yards of some unidentified small town, and begins with Glenn Ford returning from war and starting back at his old train engineer job! He stays at his old buddy’s house, where the buddy’s beautiful daughter has a crush on him! But meanwhile, Broderick Crawford, the deputy assistant yard master, has been fired from his job and gets his wife Gloria Grahame to meet with a powerful man of her acquaintance in order to get it back!
But Broderick Crawford (whom of course we know from The Vulture) is insanely jealous, and gets it into his head that his wife has had an affair with this rich man, and so, with her unwilling complicity, he pokes the guy with a knife one night on a train! Glenn Ford happens to be on this train too, smoking, and he pretty quickly falls in love with Gloria Grahame! It’s a little unbelievable how quickly it happens actually – blink and you’ll miss it! I must have blinked, in fact! As their love develops, monster-hubby Broderick becomes a meaner and more pitiful drunk, eventually losing his job once again! Glenn, pixilated by love, plots a murder, but it doesn’t quite go as planned! Of course it all ends on the train, but not in the way that I expected!
Well, as far as Fritz Lang goes, this is no M, that’s for sure! It’s not even a Big Heat, which he made a year earlier and which also starred Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame! As I’ve mentioned, the Ford-Grahame romance is kind of unbelievable, and maybe it’s that Ford just wasn’t able to radiate that cowardly pushover desperation vibe that’s so vital to noir men in this situation! You’d think if Fred MacMurray could do it anyone could, but I guess it’s just not that easy! There’s also a little bit of sloppy mise-en-scene here and there in the movie, which is very unlike our Uncle Fritz!
The main problem I think is that Lang just plain didn’t believe in this picture! He didn’t even like the title, for which I don’t blame him one bit – it should have been called That’s Railroading, which is a great line we hear from a minor character early in the film! Also, there was disagreement between Lang and his producer, Jerry Wald, over just what la bête humaine actually was! Lang thought it referred to the beast inside all humans, whereas Wald though it meant women were the human beasts! And so they try to cram the Gloria Grahame character into the typical scheming femme fatale mould when she’s actually not that at all!
No, her character gets a real raw deal in this picture! She tells a few fibs and attempts a little manipulation, but mostly is on the level and is just trying to get by! She gets stymied by nasty men at every turn and I’m sad to report that it doesn’t end very happily for her! I have to say, I don’t think it was very fair! No, not fair at all! But because I love all the train stuff and because there’s plenty of good acting – Broderick maybe overdoes the drunk act a bit, but he and Ford and especially Gloria Grahame are all very solid – I give Human Desire three deadhead trips back home!

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