Monday, 30 August 2010

Human Desire (Fritz Lang, 1954) DVD Review

Vicki: "When I first came here, I thought I'd never get used to the trains. Now when it's quiet, I get nervous."

Re-teaming Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame from Lang's film noir The Big Heat (1953), Human Desire tells a story of secrets and lies in '50s America. Train conductor Jeff Warren (Ford, in a role originally intended for Peter Lorre) returns from Japan only to become embroiled in murder... and fall in love with the killers wife, Vicki (Grahame). Blackmail, revenge and sex are the themes of this crime drama, which plays out in a brilliantly photographed black and white (Burnett Guffey, who also lensed 1953's From Here To Eternity, Fred Zinnemann), setting the mood for an intense affair.

Lang, clearly struggling under the Hays Code (an industry censorship law that ruled Hollywood from 1930 - 1968, prohibiting graphic depictions of sex and violence, among other things) still shows a firm grasp of the material and directs with a great degree of assurance and style. The early shots of Jeff on the train back home are excellent - the camera tracks from a birds eye view before cutting to a P.O.V. of the train swooping into a black tunnel and coming out to be met by a wide, open landscape. Lang had obviously dealt in the crime genre before (he directed film noirs throughout the 1940s after his move to America in 1936 - he was fleeing the Nazi's) but in this case the film plays out against more of a character-driven drama. The script, written by Alfred Hayes and adapted from the novel by Émile Zola, focuses not on crime or police procedure but on an unlawful love in a town where news travels fast. The smart screenplay allows the relationship between Jeff and Gloria to advance awkwardly, without the smart pitter-patter of most Bogart noirs. The relationship is damaged from the off, based on lies and deceit - themselves framed around a picture perfect murder. It's an interesting angle and one which sets the film apart from others of the time and also Lang's crime oeuvre. The problem lies in some of the execution. A key scene sees killer Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) threaten his wife. He throws her against the bedroom wall, raises his fist and just as she screams out for help, the censorship gears start to grind the relationship into safer ground. The threat is still believable - in fact, the film may have been worse had he hit her - but the way in which editor Aaron Stell (who spent his career flipping between B-movies like Killer Shrews, Ray Kellogg, 1959 and award winning dramas such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Robert Mulligan, 1962) arranges the scene feels too precisely judged to be effective. Rather than being a shocking, out-of-the-blue moment it becomes a well-rehearsed exercise in guideline-to-the-letter censorship. A shame, because the rest of the film works marvelously.

At just 87 minutes it moves along at a great pace and the performances keep you hooked. Grahame isn't the best actress in the world but Ford, with his steely charisma, grounds the relationship in a wounded realism. He's a truly underrated screen presence who mostly earned his wage in Westerns such as 3:10 To Yuma (Delmer Daves, 1957) and The Man From Colorado (Henry Levin, 1948) but here shows another layer to his persona. The best performance though, is by Kathleen Case as Ellen Simmons, who brings a vulnerability and charm to the film and also devastates in a subtly emotional confession to Jeff in the latter half of the film.

Arriving just a year before the boundary-breaking Rebel Without A Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1950), which advertised itself as being "a story that daringly meets the challenge of today's most vital controversy", Human Desire feels just as sexy and dangerous as that film ever did, if not as exciting or angsty. The film is sadly forgotten by most film fans now but hopefully this rerelease (the first of a few upcoming Lang features) will encourage those new to his work to delve back in time to a town where news travels fast and a quiet life is never an option...

DVD Extras: None, sadly. But the film is transferred well. There are some cracks in the sound and jumps in the film but it's the best print of the film so far and makes the most of Guffey's photography.

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