Saturday, October 19, 2019

Movie Reviews: Human Desire

Human Desire
directed by Fritz Lang
This film re-unites the cool as ice award winning stars of Lang's The Big Heat, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. Unlike The Big Heat, which features an almost straightforward cast of good guys and bad guys, Human Desire is a more self-consciously noir film, perhaps even one with an understated proto-feminist stance. 

Once again, Grahame plays a woman for whom the John Lee Hooker lyric "She wiggles when she walks! She wiggle!" was likely invented but her character here is less self-assured and to my mind much more sympathetic than many of her other performances. Grahame is more than the bad girl with a sharp tongue and taste for furs that she was in The Big Heat.

If this movie were remade today it would almost certainly have a different ending and likely "corrected" sex stereotypes that would be just as cartoonish as some of the sex stereotypes of the 50s were. So it goes. This film's issues resonate today. I am amazed by how slender the cast was. Obviously I noticed this first in the women but very few men were overweight either. Sugar, fast food and massive portion sizes have warped our society, but that's another post.

Jeff Warren (Ford) is a train engineer and war vet. Back from Korea, a happy Jeff has resumed working. Jeff rents a room from his good friends Alec and Vera Simmons (Edgar Buchanan and Diane Delaire). 

Jeff works with Alec at the railroad. All Jeff wants to do is to make some money, occasionally go out to bowl or drink, relax, and maybe find a special lady to accompany him to the occasional dance or movie. Maybe he'll even fall in love one day. Maybe. 

One young lady who is interested in Jeff is Ellen Simmons (Kathleen Case), Alec's and Vera's daughter who has, judging by Jeff's reaction, matured nicely while he was away. 

But even though Ellen throws many hints of her interest at Jeff, even playfully interrogating him about other women he might be seeing, Jeff  ignores or misses those hints. Jeff thinks that Ellen is too young for him, even though the actress playing her was twenty-one or twenty-two at this time.

Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) is another railroad employee. Many organizations have a designated scapegoat, someone often blamed for other people's mistakes. At this railroad that's Carl. Perhaps it's because Carl could stand to drop some weight? 

Flabby or not, Carl quickly loses his cool when he's unfairly criticized. He can get mean and thuggish. When he's drunk he gets even meaner. Although he takes a lot of shots, Carl gives back plenty. So Carl is shocked when he's fired after a squabble with his boss. Desperate, Carl begs for his job back only to be further humiliated and again rebuffed.

Carl is too old to do anything else. But Carl has a plan. Carl is married to the sexy and much younger Vicki (Grahame). Carl has remembered that Vicki grew up in the household of John Owens (Grandon Rhodes), a local corporate big shot and important railroad customer. If Owens puts a word in, the railroad will rehire Carl. Carl wants Vicki to speak to Owens on his behalf.

From the way Vicki stiffens when she hears Owens' name to her initial refusal to talk to Owens, it's painfully obvious to a modern audience (and likely would have been to the 50s audience as well) why the otherwise supportive and vivacious Vicki is reluctant to help. Carl's persistence leads to unforeseen consequences that will change everyone's lives forever.

I really liked Grahame's work. Vicki feels trapped; she makes some bad decisions. But Vicki is not an evil person. This film has some interesting things to say about regrets, timing, male jealousy, double standards between men and women, victim blaming, and the blindness that love and its counterpart lust can engender in everyone. 

The movie lets the viewer decide if Vicki is manipulative and wicked in a true femme fatale sense or is a frightened woman using the only tools she has. Vicki may not be 100% truthful but Carl can be scary and abusive. Ford is okay as the decent man who might be making the mistake of choosing what looks good over what is good, but this is Grahame's film thru and thru. She was an intense and serious actress, despite being typecast in va-va voom type roles. Grahame's role here was complex. Grahame's career declined after she was involved in a scandalous relationship with her stepson (!) but that too is another post.
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