Human Desire, another noir-ish effort from Lang, a German in exile who seemed at home in Hollywood. It’s based on the Zola novel, La Bête Humaine, which I have not read, but I’ve read enough of Zola to know the terrain. As for that title…is there another kind of desire? Zola’s title, The Human Beast, seems to capture the logic more accurately.
Zola’s realist novels usually present a milieu in tremendous detail, with lots of atmosphere: a mining town; an enormous urban food market; a department store; and the setting is almost a character in the book. In this film, the world of railroading is the setting, and we get into it by way of the credits followed by a long sequence that shows the men at work driving a train to its destination. Glenn Ford plays Jeff, the Korean War vet, happy to be back home at work.
While riding home as a passenger on a train, Jeff meets Vicky (Gloria Grahame), the wife of a fellow railroader. She has obvious charms…
…but he doesn’t know that she and hubby have just murdered someone on the train. As in M, the killer has a special relationship with his knife and what it represents. Vicky’s husband (Broderick Crawford) is much older than she, jealous, and not up to keeping her satisfied, but he’s very handy with a blade.
The whole town knows what’s going on between Jeff and Vicky. While he’s been at war, the little girl in the rooming house where he lives has grown up, and she tries to save him from himself, for herself. She comes to meet him at work, a little girl dwarfed by the big machine. They have their talk, but Vicky has her hooks into Jeff. She retreats, defeated, a nice contrast of womanly flesh and brute machinery.
Grahame is marvelous as a brassy fatal woman, but she just can’t get Jeff to knock off her husband, although he is tempted.
He’s a flawed noir hero, but not flawed enough for her. He sends her walking. As usual with Zola, there is a churning pot of sex, lust, greed, spiritual corruption, and violence, but Jeff is too good for it. He goes back to the working life, and we know he will return to that spicy brunette who wants him. Now I have to read the novel.
Grahame’s life might be the stuff of a Zola tale: it was stormy, and included a divorce from one husband who caught her in bed with his thirteen year old son.