In 1953 Fritz Lang, in the last section of his Hollywood career, was pleased to be able to sign a two-picture deal with Harry Cohn and Jerry Wald at Columbia. In the space of a year this arrangement produced what is generally recognised as one of Lang’s best American films, The Big Heat, as well as one of his least appreciated films (by critics) in the shape of Human Desire. Oddly, both films have the same pair of stars, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, so what is supposed to have gone wrong with the latter film?
It’s important to recognise that these two films were very different ‘properties’ that Columbia hoped to exploit and that the producers and director took a different stance towards each of them. I’ve been reading Patrick McGilligan’s book on Lang (faber and faber 1997) on the background to the two productions and I was intrigued that he doesn’t mention the key change in Hollywood during 1953 – the switch to widescreen. Fox introduced CinemaScope as a 2.55:1 aspect ratio in 1953 and the other studios had to respond. They could agree to adopt the Fox standard or develop their own formats In the immediate aftermath of Fox’s The Robe in September 1953. Columbia did eventually opt for CinemaScope, but for Human Desire, released in August 1954, they released a non-anamorphic or ‘spherical’ projection print in 1.85:1 black and white. ‘Scope required an anamorphic ‘squeezed print’. Columbia’s option meant masking a traditional Academy ratio (1.37:1) 35mm projection print. Such a print would need to be magnified to fill a wider frame with possible increase in grain, but using black and white stock in 1954 would still make it a superior image to Fox’s colour ‘Scope. All of this may sound fairly academic, but for this picture the image is more important than usual. The cinematography by Burnett Guffy includes some terrific footage of the immense diesel locomotives then in use by American railroads. Guffy was one of the leading Hollywood DoPs, known for work with Max Ophüls (The Reckless Moment, 1948), Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men, 1949) and Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place, 1950). The last of these featured Gloria Grahame, so he did know how to present the magnificent Grahame at her best. The print I watched was from MUBI, available online. It was ‘broadcast’ at 1.78:1, i.e. filling the 16:9 video or computer screen. Even so it felt like a significant improvement on the 4:3 TV screening I watched thirty or forty years ago.
Human Desire is an adaptation of the Emile Zola story that is probably best known from the earlier Jean Renoir film version, La bête humaine in 1938 starring Jean Gabin and Simone Simon. Columbia insisted on ‘Human Desire’ instead of the translation as ‘Human Beast’. The story is relatively simple. An engine driver falls in love with a married woman whose husband has forced her to become involved in a murder. Jean Gabin was, at the time and for many years after, the epitome of French masculinity in cinema and it is hard to imagine any Hollywood actor quite matching his mix of tough guy, heart-throb, hero, liberal icon etc. Simone Simon was one of several leading female actors in France to enjoy working with him. McGilligan refers to Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame as “not quite A List”, which seems to me disparaging. He follows up with the suggestion that Ford was Columbia’s ‘go to’ star name, capable of playing a wide range of characters. Born in Canada but raised in California, Ford has that ‘ordinary but possibly heroic demeanour’. He’s cast here as Jeff Warren, a returnee from the Korean War who comes back to his job on the railroad. He returns also to lodge with his co-driver Alec (played by Edgar Buchanan), whose daughter is now grown up and has her eye on Jeff. It’s not long before Jeff becomes aware that Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) has become the railroad Yard Manager and only a little later that Carl’s wife Vicki (Gloria Grahame) is trouble of one sort or another. Crawford was probably best known then for his role as Willie Stark in All the King’s Men (1949) and also as Judy Holliday’s boyfriend in Born Yesterday (1950). Human Desire opened in the UK in September 1954, which was perhaps unfortunate timing since Broderick Crawford was about to become very famous as the Chief in the TV series Highway Patrol which began in the US in 1955 and became a staple of the new ITV programme schedule in the UK in 1956. Crawford’s role in Human Desire is actually rather sad – he’s a drunk who mistreats Vicki. The plot will manoeuvre Vicki into a situation where Jeff will have to try to keep her safe from Carl. I won’t spoil the narrative any further.
I can understand why the critics were disappointed with Human Desire. Part of the problem was that the studio couldn’t cope with the idea of Glenn Ford as the psychopathic character of Zola’s story. Lang argued that all three characters suggested the ‘Human Beast’, but instead, Cohn insisted on Grahame as a femme fatale who manipulates the two men. My advice would be to forget the original story and simply focus on Ford and Grahame, both excellent in underwritten roles. For Gloria Grahame in particular, the role she was offered doesn’t really allow her full rein. For me she is one of the sexiest and appealing of all female stars forever seemingly typecast except when she got the role that won her an Oscar in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (US 1952). Columbia certainly messed up on this movie. Guffey had originally researched shooting in the Canadian Rockies which would have added a great deal to the action including a metaphorical ‘edge’ as the line went through mountain passes. As it was it seems that the main railway action was filmed on the Rock Island line in Oklahoma.
I think the film is definitely worth seeing and I note that IMDb users rate it at 7.2 which suggests that plenty of audience members rate it highly. It certainly could be a film noir. The soldier returning is a good man drawn into a dangerous relationship. Perhaps the studio did mess up with its changes to the property but with the talents of the actors, director and cinematographer, this is a film that offers plenty of attractions. Here’s brief clip from a key scene.