Human Desire (1954)

Fritz Lang's Human Desire (1954) is a dirty, deceitful, drunken diesel-ride — to the death.

Set in and around train yards, and in the trains themselves, Human Desire is an adaptation of a novel by Emile Zola, although the story and the characters are perfect for film noir.

There's the returning war veteran, often a theme in the style — except this time it is the Korean War, and it's Glenn Ford, playing the uncomplicated rail-man Jeff Warren. 

There is a psychopathic drunk, who has his own problems, although the main problem is his inability to control his temper, especially when it comes to Gloria Grahame, playing his missus.

And there's the femme fatale, too — here in the finely spiteful form of Gloria Grahame, who is doing her best for Number One, which in this case means escaping from a violent marriage.

It's this violent marriage which gives Human Desire its heart. The massive hulking trains exist in Human Desire as metaphors for everything; certainly the trains are unstoppable in their size and force, and certainly they are able to hide a multitude of sins and crimes.

In a way that we don't even notice, we find ourselves thanks to Fritz Lang's craft, bang in the heart of this brutal marriage. It is as simple as pure sex and violence, here combined by Broderick Crawford and Gloria Grahame in a way that seems far too real to manage.

Gloria Grahame in Human Desire (1954)

Rather than expand its remit to explore the themes of desire and ill-fated love, Human Desire by Fritz Lang brings focus to its seedy subject — domestic violence. Glenn Ford is the man who can take it all, but whose own desire nearly tips into a murderous plot, the same plot that Gloria Grahame seems to have been trapped within herself —  suffering sexual abuse as a young girl, at the hands of a nasty uncle, who gets his own comeuppance too — much in the way that most people tend to in film noir.

The yards provide the trains, which are handsome additions to any film — and Glenn Ford revels in posing with a cigarette at the wheel, often having that self-same ciggie lit by the brakeman's pipe.

Glenn Ford in Human Desire (1954)

The story is as follows: Korean War veteran Jeff Warren returns to his town and duties as a train engineer, driving streamliners hauling passenger trains for the fictional Central National railroad. Warren worked alongside Alec Simmons and was a boarder in his home before going off to war. Alec's daughter Ellen is smitten with Jeff —  but despite her fine qualities as a good, honest home-making woman — she is not going to be any competition at all, for the twisted workings of the femme fatale, who is only ever going to lead the poor engineer —  into murder.

With much of the drama being provided by the brutal marriage across the train yard Glenn Ford may be the returning veteran, but he is fairly passive throughout. The world he finds at home is not rocked into crime and now controlled by gangsters, as it is in many 1940s film noirs. 

This world is a place of domestic violence, where the crime is not on the streets, but in the home. The murder that takes place on the train is not quite as expected, and not particularly well-shown, although the aftermath of it is hell.

When Glenn Ford makes his move it is to help Gloria Grahame's character move on, and despite their closeness, there is still coldness between them, and coldness in fact from Gloria Grahame's character Vicki Buckley.

Domestic Violence and Romantic Succour

While not bearing the hallmarks of a classic film noir, Human Desire is a tidy package which rolls nicely in and out of the dark tunnels of violence, greed and of course, desire, and never misses a moment when it comes to honing down the sharp point.

Broderick Crawford wobbles dramatically as the drunken abuser, and like the psychopath he is, cannot help but kill. It's a bad habit, although if film noir is here to say anything to us today, far into its future, it's here to let us know that murder is a habit that can persist.

Drunken desirous diesel driver Broderick Crawford in Human Desire (1954)

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