In the forties and fifties, Fritz Lang had a nice little sideline remaking Jean Renoir movies. In 1945, he remade Renoir’s LA CHIENNE as SCARLET STREET with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, and the result was one of the finest films in the noir canon. In 1954, he remade LA BETE HUMAINE as HUMAN DESIRE with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. The results, if not a masterpiece like SCARLET STREET, are still quite impressive.
HUMAN DESIRE centers around the marriage of Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford)—a big lug of a guy with a quick laugh and a hot temper—and his sexy young wife, Vicki (Grahame). Things are okay between Carl and Vicki. He works hard and unhappily at the railroad while she sits around the house looking sexy and waiting for him to come home. Then one day, in a tantrum, he quits his job. By the time he gets to the house, he’s already in a panic and desperate to get his job back. Specifically, he wants Vicki to get it back for him.
Reluctantly, she agrees. She goes to see Carl’s boss, sleeps with him, and gets her husband his job back. But that, it turns out, wasn’t quite what Carl had in mind. In a cold, controlled rage, he forces Vicki to help him murder the guy.
From there, their marriage spirals into a nightmare. Carl drinks all day, beats Vicki at night, and then begs her forgiveness. She only takes this so long before she sets her sights on Jeff (Glenn Ford), one of Carl’s coworkers. Jeff’s a nice guy who’s just back from Korea, but when he meets Vicki you can almost see the steam rise off his face. Before long, Vicki is crying on his shoulder and pulling him toward the bedroom. Once Jeff has seen the promised land, Vicki more or less orders him to kill Carl.
This movie reunited Fritz Lang with Ford and Grahame a year after the three of them had made THE BIG HEAT. Most noir aficionados prefer THE BIG HEAT, and HUMAN DESIRE also suffers from constant comparisons to Renoir’s original LA BETE HUMAINE. The comparisons between the three movies is understandable, but they obscure the fact that, by itself, HUMAN DESIRE is a brutal little triangle of lust and murder. Ford, Broderick, and Grahame are quite good, with Gloria in particular really digging deep. She’s a femme fatale here (a switch from the usual whore-with-the-heart-of-gold role she was confined to for much of her career), but she makes the character a believable combination of sexiness, cowardice and cold-blooded calculation. Vicki’s not a bad person, not exactly. She’s just bad news. If her husband hadn’t lost his job, they might have gone on happily for a long time, but when things do go wrong, she goes wrong with them. In showing how a femme fatale is born from circumstance and bad character, Grahame gives one of her great performances.
The chief criticism to level against the film is that it bails out at the end. Whereas in films like SCARLET STREET and, earlier, in M, Lang was able to see his dark vision though to the end, here he pulls back a little. The ending, though dark and gritty, still has the tease of Hollywood uplift.
Still, there is a lot here to appreciate. Lang could be an uneven director, but there is no doubting his enormous gifts. From the murder in the darkened train car, to Grahame’s post-coital seduction of Ford—turning him from an illicit lover to a would be murderer—Lang’s management of scenes is always brutally effective. This may not be the best film he made, but it is an underrated piece of work.