In 1953 Fritz Lang directed Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame in the noir film The Big Heat. The very next year the three joined forces again for Human Desire. And just like with The Big Heat, for some reason Grahame was not the first choice for the female lead. Lang wanted Rita Hayworth, but couldn’t get her.
The film is officially based on the 1890 Emile Zola novel La Bete Humaine, but beyond the big plot points it’s not a very faithful adaptation. Jean Renoir’s 1938 movie La Bete Humaine starring Jean Gabin and Simone Simon stuck more closely to the way the characters were originally presented, including making the train itself almost a character in the film.
I had already seen Renoir’s film before watching Human Desire and I confess that they were different enough that I didn’t even connect the two for a while. I also consider La Bete Humaine (1938) to be the better film compared to Human Desire, but that doesn’t mean that the latter is not worth seeing. It’s got Grahame at her steamiest – which is probably what led to the seemingly random title. Reportedly Lang hated the name, but I suppose the marketing folks knew what would drive people to the box office to see it. And if they had given it the translated title of “The Human Beast” people might have thought it was a goofy monster movie.
Military veteran Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) returns from fighting in the Korean War. He gets his old job back being a railroad engineer. His co-worker Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan) lets him stay with him and while doing so introduces Jeff to Vicki (Gloria Grahame), Alec’s daughter. Vicki just oozes sex appeal and Jeff is immediately attracted to her. She’s married, though, and to a man 15 years or so older than her.
We soon come to learn that this husband, Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford), drinks too much and has a violent temper. When the combination of the two causes him to lose his job he begs Vicki to talk with the railroad owner to see if she can get him re-hired. She does, but the entire time she’s gone Carl gets more and more insanely jealous with the unproven thought that his wife used sexual favors to win over the magnate. Carl ends up beating her for this.
Carl is not satisfied, though. He arranges for the three of them to be on the same train and with Vicki right there in the compartment he stabs the man to death. Who should be near the compartment but Jeff, who was taking a break. He sees enough to know that something bad just happened and that Vicki was somehow involved. When the train shows up at its destination with a dead man onboard, though, Jeff doesn’t tell anyone that he saw Vicki.
Now Carl knows that Jeff knows something, too, but he doesn’t dare do anything about it. He’s also very unhappy that Jeff and Vicki have an obvious sexual connection. He continues to take his anger out on her. Jeff has fallen in love/lust with Vicki by this time and if he really loved her he’d get rid of this abusive husband of hers, wouldn’t he?
The reason to see this film is Grahame. She is every inch the sexy seductress. Ford doesn’t bring the same energy to this role that he did to The Big Heat. I won’t say he mailed it in, but there are places where I expected a little more from him. It’s possible that the watering down of the character itself contributed some to the presentation feeling just a little lacking. Crawford is effective as the brutish, jealous husband.
If you’ve read the novel and want to see only one movie version of it then watch La Bete Humaine (1938). However, if you dislike foreign films, or want to see the story in Lang’s hands then go for Human Desire (1954). If you haven’t read the novel, but this story sounds interesting then I recommend you give Human Desire a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars