Human Desire (1954)

16 11 2010

If a film is directed by Fritz Lang and shot by Burnett Guffey (In a Lonely Place) it is most likely going to look fantastic. Sure, you’re likely to get your fair share of shot/reverse shot conversations and other irritating tropes of the time, but you’re guessing this is going to be filled with images that will ingrained into your brain for a long time. Well, you’re right. The opening two minutes or so here, which is completely devoid of dialogue, produces some of the greatest Antonioni-esque compositions to ever come before the director’s own work. It’s convincingly modern, much like most of the films from the later cycle of noir.

From there on, everything sort of falls apart. Sure, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame are great together, having already done so in Lang’s The Big Heat from the previous year. They both embody your standard principles of noir protagonists. Ford is a rugged and quiet drifter-type, perhaps still reeling from the effects of the war in Korea. Grahame has those standard femme-fatale features yet is actually sort of less sinister and more sympathetic than one would anticipate. The film’s story comes from the Emile Zola’s novel, La Bête Humaine, which translates into English as “The Human Beast.” I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak for Zola, but I do know that Renoir’s film of the same name portrays the lead female interest as something of a beast.

Sure, titles tend to be the concerns of the marketing department, but I can’t help but think the subtle change was a deliberate attempt on Lang’s part to distance Grahame’s character from the usual style of evil seductresses that were invading the screen at the time. Sure, she is seductive and there’s a lot about her that’s left up to the audience’s imagination, but we are still able to see her vulnerable side. More importantly, it erupts in front of Ford. He knows how fragile she can be, which makes his predicament all the more complicated.

So what’s the problem exactly? A noir with slight humanist tone sounds like the best thing ever. I wouldn’t disagree, but there’s too much dead space in between the Arty (with a capital a) sequences from the others that just filler to get us there. Lang is a master at composing and Guffey exists on a similar level when it comes to capturing images, but there’s something about the film, when it’s all put together that doesn’t quite make everything fit like it should. Maybe there’s too much talking. While there is more quiet moments than most noir, it still isn’t quiet enough as it should be. This sounds preposterous, but the writing seems to be constantly walking a thin line between “clever” noir dialogue and being something more contemplative. It’s not quite one but it’s not quite the other.

I don’t mean to gang up on the writing in particular, but it really does sink what should be a great vehicle into merely a very good one. While Grahame definitely flesh out her character, there’s not enough to actively care about her trouble. Maybe this is really a strength, that we never know if she’s as dangerous as she could be, but it does seemingly make things easier for Ford. He has an equally attractive and much less problematic female waiting for him. Why is he so conflicted? It seems like the movie got so caught up in fitting certain conventions that in certain cases, it forgets to include a justification. As it is, Human Desire is so close to being Lang’s masterpiece, but it’s also not. It should be mandatory viewing for anyone who considers themselves a fan, but like a great deal of his American work, the ambition in Lang’s vision seems like too much for Hollywood.

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2 responses

17 11 2010
filip

Yes! earlier movies did better but right now just for the money

22 11 2010
Colin

I’m quite fond of this film – in fact I like all Lang’s American movies a lot. Having said that you’re right to point out the flaws in the production as it does kind of fall between two stools. Good to finally have it on DVD too.

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