Human Desire by Fritz Lang

Human Desire by Fritz Lang

With the Scream Queen hot on her tail, the Femme Fatale is the throned queen of celluloid slut shaming. Human Desire by Fritz Lang is a film noir with a difference.

“You never can tell about men, can you?”

“They say the same thing about women, you know.”

There’s nothing more splendid than sinking into a deep sofa and thrilling to the lighting, set desing, expressions, tight dialogue and plot structure of a film noir. It’s a genre filled with tropes that still excite (ceiling fans split the light to show confusion, and our old favourite: DO NOT REPEAT DO NOT GO DOWN THE STEPS THEY LEAD TO HELL, YOU HUSSY). Speaking of hussies, women get a raw deal in film noir. The strongest female character is the Femme Fatale, an avatar of lust and death, a brazen manipulator of souls who wants a fast ticket to Easy Street. With the Scream Queen hot on her tail, she’s the cinematic epitomy of slut shaming.

Human Desire is a little different. It’s a film noir with small but telling subtleties with its treatment of women…

Human Desire Trailer

The music is modern but the story transcends time. Because desperation’s never going to go away…

Typically, whenever people talk about Fritz Lang’s 1954 film Human Desire, they’ll brand it the weak sister of the movie that Lang directed the previous year, The Big Heat (they share two of the same stars, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame). Those who are more on the literary side (or just more pretentious) may mention that it’s based on the Emile Zola novel La BĂȘte Humaine, which also provided the inspiration for the 1938 Jean Renoir film of the same name. Other than that, they’ll dismiss it as your garden-variety woman-tempts-man-to-murder noir and go back to admiring Lee Marvin scalding Gloria Grahame’s face with boiling-hot coffee. However, now that Columbia has released Human Desire as part of their second Film Noir Classics box set, viewers can see that there’s something more complicated and ambiguous going on.

The story of film noir classic Human Desire centers on three characters:

  • Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford), a train engineer who has just returned home from service in the Korean War.
  • Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford), a blustery, none-too-bright brute who works in the same train yard as Jeff.
  • Vicki Buckley (Gloria Grahame), a working girl who has transitioned into a stay-at-home wife position.

The plot starts rolling down the tracks when Carl gets fired for screwing up on the job and talking back to his boss. Carl begs Vicki to ask Mr. Owens (Grandon Rhodes), a big-time businessman who has pull with the train yard’s higher-ups, to put in a good word for him (Vicki’s mother used to clean Owens’s house). This she does, but Carl grows suspicious when she’s gone for a few hours. When Vicki returns, Carl accuses her of having an affair with Owens. Vicki denies it at first, but Carl beats her until she “confesses.”

After this, Carl forces Vicki to write a letter to Owens telling him that she wants to meet on the train that night. Carl then drags Vicki onto the train and into Owens’s compartment, where he stabs the cuckolding businessman to death with his knife (it has a funny way of popping up whenever Carl senses his manhood being questioned or threatened). Jeff becomes entangled in this mess by riding the same train and having a smoke right outside the car where Owens’s compartment is located. Carl tells Vicki to distract Jeff so that he can sneak away. This she does, and the plot thickens from there.

Lang and his screenwriter, Alfred Hayes, orchestrate the introduction of Gloria Grahame’s character in a very interesting way. When we first see her, Vicki’s lounging in bed eating bon-bons, a high-heeled foot sticking languidly up in the air. The only way that she could look more like a femme fatale is if she had a gun resting by her side. When Carl comes home, however, Vicki’s demeanour shifts: she sits up, flaunts her new stockings and pats Carl on the back for standing up to his boss. In short, she plays to a tee the role of the good suburban housewife.

“Ah, but that’s what femme fatales do,” you may say here. “They’re devious, dissembling tramps.” Maybe so, but consider what happens next. When Carl tells Vicki that the boss fired him, she barely bats an eye: now’s their chance to head east, she tells him. When that prospect doesn’t raise his spirits, Vicki offers to find a job to tide them over. She worked before they were married, after all. It’s not quite feminism in film noir, but it’s certainly a departure from the standard film noir tropes.

Right at this point, Vicki violates a cardinal rule of film noir: if you are a femme fatale, you do not work. Or if you do, you only work long enough to snare some chump who’s willing to do your bidding. A femme fatale’s top priority is scoring an address on Easy Street. In contrast to this, Vicki offers here to carry part of the load and exercise some independent initiative.

Carl rebuffs her offer. “I don’t want my wife workin’,” he says. “I didn’t marry you so you could take care of me.” Instead, this guy’s idea of marriage seems to involve making Vicki employ her “feminine wiles” and then punishing her when she does. His solicitousness and the way that he toys with his knife on the train ride to see Owens suggests that he knows on some level exactly what’s going to happen once Vicki steps inside that big office. He tells Vicki to lure Jeff away from the train car (not by discussing the advantages of train travel over automobile travel, one suspects) and later threatens to hand her letter to Owens over to the police if she leaves (you could think of this as a cruel parody of a marriage license).

All of this can make attentive viewers to regard Vicki much more sympathetically. Sure, she seduces Jeff and tries to get him to kill her husband, but can you blame her? What right-thinking woman wouldn’t do everything she could to get away from an abusive, blackmailing, murderous thug like Carl? As for Jeff, he’s no saint either. He doesn’t hesitate in making a move for Vicki on the train. Also, he doesn’t have many qualms about sleeping with his buddy’s wife, especially when she shows him the bruises from Carl’s beatings and comes on all submissive and helpless (that’s a recurring theme in Human Desire: men getting attracted to women who are younger or dependent in some way).

I don’t want to give away what happens in the end. However, when you get to the part where Vicki tells Carl about her history with Owens, ask yourself: Is she really telling the truth, or is she just pushing this scumbag’s buttons to show that she’s never coming back?

Also, think about some of her last lines: “You never knew me. You never bothered to figure me out.”

READ MORE: Check out some of our favourite silent movies (you can watch the whole of Dr. Caligari for free) and find out why we love film noir as much as any well-crafted 3D blockbuster epic.