Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Stupid Human

I don't know how many cable or satellite providers other than DirecTV ofer Cinémoi as one of the channels in their lineup. But for those who do have it, there are two chances coming up to see Fritz Lang's Human Desire: today at 5:30 PM and tomorrow at 2:30 PM. For those who don't have the channel, it has received a DVD release, as part of a Columbia box set of noirs.

Human Desire strts off with some interesting shots of a train going along the tracks, taken from the perspective of the front of the train moving forward. That train is taking Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) home. Jeff is an engineer on the line, who stepped away from his job to serve in the Korean War, and is coming home from the war, not just from a run driving one of the trains. When Jeff gets back to his home base, he goes "home" to Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan), who is both Jeff's co-engineer on the run they make together, as well as the man whose family has been renting out one of the rooms in their house to Jeff. Alec's daughter Ellen (Kathleen Case) has grown up in the years since Jef left for Korea, and boy does she have the hots for him.

But Jeff isn't really in love with Ellen, and besides, it probably wouldn't be right considering the age differnece. In fact, Jeff doesn't seem to be in love with anybody, although that's about to change. Cut to assistant station master Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford). Due to some accidents at the station, he's called in by the station master and summarily fired. Losing your job is a problem for anybody; it's particularly a problem when you've got a young high-maintenance trophy life like Carl does in Vicki (Gloria Grahame). But at least Carl has a backup plan. Vicki used to work for Mr. Owens (Grandon Rhodes), who's a big investor with the rail line living in the big city. Carl thinks Vicki might have some influence with Owens to be able to get Carl his job back, so it's off to the city for them.

Vicki is able to get Carl his job back, but there's a problem: Vicki's meeting with Owens goes on, and on, the whole day long, and Carl is a very jealous man. When he finds out that Vicki wasn't honest with him about her and Owens going out for drinks, he gets really angry, and plans to confront Owens. That eventually happens on one of the rail line's overnight trains, climaxing with Carl pulling out a knife and killing Owens! Of course killings don't go off without a hitch, and this one involves Carl, with Vicki in tow, trying to get back from Owens' compartment to theirs: Jeff has bummed a ride on the train and is standing in between two of the cars having a smoke. Carl sends Vicki to seduce the man (not realizing his identity) so that Carl can get back to his compartment. Vicki does so, without Jeff knowing that she's actually Mrs. Buckley.

Oh, but he learns it quickly enough at the murder inquest. When called to testify about what he saw, he claims he doesn't know the person who crossed paths with him coming back from Owens' compartment. Why he does this makes no sense, and frankly I'd think that it would have implicated him, but without such a lie we wouldn't have the rest of the movie. And come to think of it, it does make sense why Jeff would do such a thing: he's thinking with his libido and not his brain. He's fallen in love with Vicki, especially when she starts telling him about how mean Carl is to her, and how Carl has an important piece of evidence that would incriminate her when of course it's Carl who killed Owens. (There's no mystery about Carl's having killed Owens; we're shown that he did it.) Jeff doesn't realize that Vicki is a femme fatale, as he tries to help her deal with her beast of a husband. She was able to lie to him on the train the night Owens was killed, and she's still more than able to lie to him. In fact, by the end of the movie one wonders whether she's telling the truth to anybody....

Human Desire is a remake of Le bête humaine, originally a story by Émile Zola and made into a 1939 film by Jean Renoir. I haven't seen the French version, so I can't judge how the two compare. The title translates to "The Human Beast"; in French most adjectives go after the noun they modify. I kind of like using the other meanings of the French words, though, which would give us "The Stupid Human". Glenn Ford's Jeff is pretty stupid for lying at the inquest; surely he would have realized this would get him in some serious legal hot water, and possibly cost him his job. But love makes people do stupid things. As for Human Desire, it's a good movie, but everybody in the cast has done better. Ford, Grahame, and director Lang were all together a year earlier on The Big Heat, a movie that's outstanding where The Human Desire is merely good. Broderick Crawford is more than good enough here, although he was even better in Born Yesterday and All the King's Men. As for the story, reviewers who have also seen La bête humaine suggest that the ending had to be changed somewhat for Human Desire due to the Production Code. I do have to say that only having seen the latter, the ending did seem a bit abrupt and forced. I'm also not quite certain how I feel about Vicki's never being honest about her relationships with Carl and Owens. Or maybe one of those stories was the actual truth. To be fair, this is probably deliberate; it's supposed to be jarring and unsettling, as with any well-portrayed bad woman in a noir film.

I don't know if Human Desire is available individually on DVD, but as I said at the beginning, it's part of a box set along with Pushover, Nightfall (which I wouldn't quite call a noir, but more of a post noir), and City of Fear, a really underrated post-noir that I still haven't blogged about.

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