Sunday, November 06, 2011

Underrated Movie #138: Human Desire

Title: Human Desire
Year: 1954
Director: Fritz Lang
Writer: Alfred Hayes, based on the novel “The Human Beast” by Emile Zola
Stars: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford, Kathleen Case 

The Story: Ford is a railroad engineer just back from Korea. Grahame is the unhappy wife of the station master. When her brutish husband gets her involved in a murder, she turns to Ford for help, but can he trust himself around her?

How it Came to be Underrated: This was never on VHS and not on DVD until very recently, making this one even more underrated than Lang’s other ‘50s noirs.

Why It’s Great:
  1. I first knew Ford as Pa Kent in Superman, a role that tapped into his ability to convey stoic decency, but in noir roles such as this, The Big Heat and Gilda, the same stoicism is always threatening to harden into cold fury, and we get a sense that he’s capable of very dark things if he lets himself go. (And a few times, such as in 3:10 to Yuma, he played out-and-out villains that allowed those dark impulses to have full reign.)
  2. Lang hated the title that the studio forced on him, saying “Vat other kind of desire is there??”, but I actually like it. Some treat lust (and its close cousin bloodlust) as otherworldly forces, imposed on us from without, but not Lang. Humanizing desire was what Lang did best. In Lang’s world, the danger is not that the murderer has a master plan that you can’t even comprehend—it’s that the murderer’s guilt may destroy him from the inside.
  3. Grahame was possibly the sexiest actress of Hollywood’s golden age, which is startling because, when you just look at a photo of her, she’s not that pretty. Even her voice is squeaky and petulant, on first blush. But let her eyes flare up, let her move… most importantly, let her act, and the screen catches on fire. Behind those eyes: lust, self-awareness, anger, and cool intelligence were warring with each other. When she gets accused of being a femme fatale in this movie, she responds with a blistering and all-too believable story of her lifetime of exploitation. She couldn’t help but humanize every role she had.
  4. When Zola wrote his 1890 novel, trains were a symbol of dehumanizing industrialization. By the time this movie was made, they were already rotting relics of a lost world, with jets zipping overhead, but few settings have as much iconographic power as a railyard, and Lang is clearly in love with the mechanics of it all, hypnotically cutting together nearly-Soviet-style montages of the mighty behemoths switching gracefully from rail to rail.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Ford, Grahame and Lang had previously made the legendary noir The Big Heat. Grahame’s greatest noir was In a Lonely Place. An underrated not-quite-noir by Lang from around this time was Clash By Night.
How Available Is It?: It now has a beautiful looking DVD, with a nice little introduction by actress Emily Mortimer, of all people.
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