German expressionist filmmaker Fritz Lang found success in his transition into the Hollywood studio system: the strict shot-return-shot techniques of Scarlet Street and The Big Heat were a far cry from the sweeping camerawork of Lang’s 20’s masterpiece Metropolis, but were of their own quality and demonstrated Lang’s abilities as a storyteller in contrast to his earlier visual artistry. So it is with Human Desire, the latest addition to Eureka Entertainment’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ collection, celebrating the forgotten works of the great artists of cinema’s golden period. As a demonstration of Lang’s particular style, there’s more to be desired. But as a Film Noir, Human Desire finds ways to flex the formula with thematic interplay that pushes the boundaries of what was considered appropriate for the big screen.
Reuniting with his Big Heat leads Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford, Lang directs Human Desire as a loose adaptation of the Émile Zola novel La Bête Humaine. Grahame stars as Vicki, the abused wife of jealous alcoholic Carl (Broderick Crawford) who, in an act of madness, murders a man on suspicion that he is engaging in an extra-marital affair with Vicki. This embroils our femme fatale in a murder mystery that ensnares innocent war veteran/train engineer Jeff (Glenn Ford), whose own lust for Vicki begins to interfere with the case.
It’s this domestic angle that ironically throws Human Desire out of any familiar surroundings. Domesticity is a theme that sits cosily at home within the Film Noir genre: Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, all deal in threats to marital life. What allows Human Desire to stretch this trend is through its candid representation of domestic violence: the femme fatale is less the puppeteer here, as she is a victim forced into action in order to survive. Featuring lengthy sequences where Carl punishes his wife for her suspected adultery, Lang allows the camera-eye to linger, forcing us to question the role of power within the marital relation. The displeasure enticed from the frame will induce an admirable alignment with Grahame’s Vicki, placing dramatic agency firmly in her hands as she instigates her revenge: she’s the victim to Carl, but is by no means victim to plot control at the hands of her male co-stars.
It helps that Grahame exudes that classic air of mysterious dominance. Like a lioness prowling in the shadows, Grahame proves beautiful but dangerous. However, the threat isn’t one to be feared, but one to be respected: through clever writing and a composed use of musical composition, Vicki’s manipulation of Carl and Jeff is presented as necessary and as such, allows Grahame to stand out amidst the cluttered collection of villainous femme fatales.
Lang’s direction, while strict in its classical trappings, does give way to this promotion of feminine agency, through its framing of the narrative action and its prevailing emphasis on the importance of Vicki in relation to both male characters. Like a mirrored Bechdel test, Carl and Jeff are in constant connection with Vicki, even during her noticeable absences: her shadow looms over the narrative, Lang’s tight control of shot composition and close-ups accentuating this effect.
It does conclude in a predictable fashion, with a particular scene aboard a train threatening to derail the subtle development of Vicki’s situation. The subversion of feminine power is a plot device familiar to those who have followed Film Noir throughout its eclectic run in Hollywood: here, it creates an injustice that could work for or against the film.
But, Human Desire is not so much about the conclusion to the mystery, as it is about Vicki’s acquisition of power at the expense of two foolhardy male adversaries. While the male characters firmly fit into the stereotypical boots of this genre, Grahame’s Vicki is a character unlike many: while powerful and a proven threat to the masculine model, she is deservedly placed in this position as a result of a masculine threat. Lang recognises this path and runs with it, full speed, crafting an uncommonly female dominated picture: Ford and Crawford may leave their marks on Vicki, but Grahame’s mischievous Vicki will leave hers on you.
Dir: Fritz Lang
Prd: Lewis J. Rachmill
Scr: Alfred Hayes
Starring: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford
DOP: Burnett Guffey
Editor: Aaron Stell
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Runtime: 91 minutes