HUMAN DESIRE (Fritz Lang, 1954)

Flimsy, unconvincing, at times ludicrous version of Zola’s La bête humaine, updated to the present, divested of naturalism and moved to New Jersey. The script is a load of melodramatic clichés, with heavy-handed references to the Korean War to remind us that its author, Alfred Hayes, helped write Rossellini’s magnificent Paisà (1946) about the Second World War. Fritz Lang, who directed, opens Human Desire with a stunning hommage to Jean Renoir’s 1938 film version: forwardly propelled train’s-eye shots over tracks and through bridges and a tunnel, visually encapsulating two ideas: the penetration of an obsessive mind; fate. Little of interest follows despite faint echoes of the Renoir film and traces of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Lang, who regretted the sanitization of the material that fifties Hollywood imposed, considered the film vastly inferior to Renoir’s. He was correct, although La bête humaine, starring Jean Gabin in a powerhouse performance, is also not among the brilliant lights in the Renoir œuvre.
     Glenn Ford stars as Jeff Warren, who returns from three years in Korea to reclaim his job as a train engineer—a hifalutin description of a brakeman. Ford, who had as little talent as Rock Hudson, was a dumb jerk. I recall a television appearance where he explained to host Mike Douglas that acting classes that have students imagining they are chairs were not for him because he had no intention of ever playing a chair. Of course, artists (whatever their medium) in preparation for a work of art perform exercises that they do not intend to show an audience. The whole purpose of the acting exercise that Ford disparaged is for actors to empty themselves of ego, creating an imaginative empty space that they can then fill with whatever character they will play. It is not hard to understand Ford’s difficulty with such a tack as he never gave a single performance that wasn’t full of himself and nothing or no one else. His Warren is a perfect example.
     This is an odious beast beset with “human desire”: at an inquest into a murder, Warren refrains from telling the truth about what he saw onboard the train where the murder occurred, because he wants to have sex with the married woman whom his lie is shielding; but nothing of this self-serving motive, or Warren’s capacity for it, is at all visible in Ford’s superficial projection of personality. Indeed, Ford’s own smugness, sanctimoniousness and complacency eventually take over the role, leaving the protagonist a cipher—at best, a non-human beast. One imagines that Ford never searched himself to find the points where his own character and Warren’s crossed. Rather, he clung to a self-idealization that he projected onto Warren, just as he had done with all the other characters he played.
     Somewhat intriguingly, Warren and work colleague Carl Buckley, the husband of the woman he beds and also the killer, seem to be split halves of a single personality. Is Buckley what Warren would have become had he stayed home rather than go to war?—or does Buckley’s becoming a killer reflect Warren’s becoming a killer in combat despite Warren’s insistence there’s a difference? I don’t know; but our first view of Buckley makes him seem just as “nice” as Warren—then Buckley loses his job, which he desperately needs to feel like a man, and discovers that his wife has been unfaithful. Warren ends up feeling even more morally superior than he used to because he resists lover Vicki Buckley’s attempt to get him to murder her husband. Looked at from a different angle, Warren abandons Vicki to her fate: Carl strangles his wife onboard the train that Jeff, the blind lug, is helming.
     All this is psychological doodling; only Buckley’s theft of his first victim’s watch—his symbolical attempt to master wife, time and fate—resonates. The rest is late forties/fifties nonsense.
     Burnett Guffey’s shadowy black-and-white cinematography is worthy of a great noir, as is Daniele Amfitheatrof’s relentless, ominous score.
     Broderick Crawford gets nowhere playing Buckley, but the next year, in Fellini’s Il bidone, he would give his greatest performance.

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