No Other Kind: Close-Up on Fritz Lang's "Human Desire"

One of Fritz Lang's most under-appreciated American films, his Zola adaptation is powered by a tremendous performance by Gloria Grahame.
Duncan Gray

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Fritz Lang's Human Desire (1954) is showing from June 28 - July 28, 2018 in the United Kingdom as part of Human Beasts: A Fritz Lang Double Bill.

The ringmaster and the architect—in the history of cinema, before the New Hollywood, before the French New Wave, there may be no directors who complement each other as well as Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang. The surface parallels are evident enough: both began their careers in silent cinema, made their most canonical masterpiece in the 1930s, fled to Hollywood as fascism took over Europe, and returned to their homelands after the war to make their final films. Both have a somewhat totemic place in film history, and in neither case is the totem the whole story. As much as he signifies cinematic humanism, Renoir could be an unsentimental and deeply cynical storyteller. And for all the dark cities, crooked anti-heroes, and sordid atmosphere in Lang's films, there is also a vein of his cinema drawn to adventure stories of the purest innocence. Yet the formal legacy of each is very close to a yin and yang of narrative filmmaking: Renoir, a channeler of theatrical improvisation, who brought his camera out into courtyards and countrysides—and Lang, whose cinema flourished in set-bound worlds of obsessive design, where even the motion of the actors had a touch of the mechanical. 

For each, the form relays something of a philosophy of fate, because neither the quintessential Lang hero nor Renoir hero is in complete control of their destiny. In Renoir, twists of fate are a puppet show without a moral, a burlesque act with audience participation, a dance where no one can stick with a partner, or—literally, in several films—a river that carries you where it will, and the best you can do is emerge with wisdom or bemusement. In Lang, fate is more ominous, determined by some unseen force—a supervillain? a detached god? the director himself?—that moves the characters while they, with limited success, try to fight against it. To put it simply, the world of Renoir is open, the world of Lang is enclosed. And should the surface parallels sound too unspecific, Lang remade two of Renoir's classics during his stint in Hollywood, providing a look at how different directors (and different systems) might handle the same material. La chienne (1931) was remade as Scarlet Street (1945), and Renoir's La bête humaine (1938) became Lang's Human Desire (1954).

Of the 22 films Lang made in Hollywood, Human Desire is one of the more under-appreciated, with the misfortune of being so immediately comparable to Lang's American masterpiece The Big Heat (1953)with which it shares its two stars, a Columbia contract, and an interest in gender politics—and Renoir's earlier classic. Both are derived from a novel by Émile Zola, and Renoir's is easily the purer of the two, willing to follow each dark track of its story to the natural conclusion. The Renoir version also flaunts its literary credentials from the start, opening with a quote from Zola, while Human Desire is the sort of lowdown noir whose poster announced, "She was born to be be make trouble!" Yet I must confess a certain soft spot for Human Desire, and the genre buff in me would take it over La bête humaine at least three nights a week. It's a scrappy and thoughtful little slice of nastiness, and for all the ways that it simplifies or sanitizes its origins—or at least partly attempts to—it introduces roiling complications and ambiguities underneath. Such are the ways that two treasures can grow from the same scenario. 

First, then, a word on the scenario. It is a tale of lust, jealousy, and murder set in a railroad yard, about a locomotive engineer who gets entangled between a husband and wife. The husband has hit employment trouble. Luckily, his wife has a past with a well-connected man high up the ladder, so the husband sends her to plead the case with him. When the husband finds out that their meeting turned into an exchange for sexual favors, he flies into a rage and murders the man. Enter the railroad engineer, who, while a potential witness to the crime, begins an affair with the wife. The wife is now stuck, complicit in murder, and married to a man she no longer loves. If only her husband could have an accident—she and the engineer might be happy. 

As Columbia Pictures developed an American remake, tentatively titled "The Human Beast," the studio, and in particular its president Harry Cohn, found the source material too pessimistic and anti-social. Pre-production went on and on in search of a shooting script, and Lang would recall meetings between himself, screenwriter Alfred Hayes, and studio exec Jerry Wald, with disagreement about the nature of the story and who or what the "human beast" of the title actually referred to. What should the film be? Was it a drama about three complex and tragic characters, or—as Wald would push for—more a plot driven by an alluring but monstrous femme fatale? By the time the title was changed to "Human Desire," an unenthusiastic Lang is said to have remarked, well, what other kind is there? The finished product is beset by budget cuts and saddled with Hollywoodisms, becoming the sort of melodrama where, when a character reveals their true past and motives, it's uncertain whether it's a lie, the truth, or simply a concession to expectations. But time and again, something of the essential, caustically ironic noir spirit could flourish under such conditions. 

Take, for example, the star role of the engineer, played by Jean Gabin in La bête humaine and Glenn Ford in Human Desire. The opening Zola quote in Renoir's film frames the character with madness, describing him as a man whose ancestors' alcoholism had "poisoned his blood." Gabin repeats this in a monologue, and he begins the film already as a man on the edge of instability, as though his blue collar heritage is the kind inherently steeped in violence. 

For Human Desire, such an explicitly dark characterization of its working-man hero is simply out of bounds. And as Glenn Ford wanders his way through the first act of the film, it can be easy to surmise that, somewhere between the source material and Columbia's wariness towards it, the character turned into an all-American empty shell. He is the salt-of-the-earth man with a boy-next-door grin: steady, capable, and always ready with a good-humored response that's as friendly as it is banal. He did his duty, too—he's just returned from combat service in the Korean War, which becomes an intriguing character note precisely insofar as it doesn't seem to have affected him one way or the other. But then watch his eyes in the first scene he shares with Gloria Grahame, who asks him to have a drink to lure him away from a crime scene. As he walks behind her, the boy-next-door grin takes on the quality of a leer. He very quickly forces a kiss on her, and it can't rightly be said that Human Desire is in any meaningful way about his moral temptation, because he scarcely has to move at all to be tempted. The moment implicates rather than tests his stability. He remains an unreflective blank slate, only reaching peak spontaneity when, mid-kiss with Grahame late in the film, he grabs a handful of her hair and clenches.

It is a far more insightful, then, and closer to the film's center, to focus on the "her" of the equation instead—a fundamental change in perspective that does the triangle of La bête humaine a favor. And so Human Desire is a fine B-side to The Big Heat not just from sharing its two leads, but sharing a dynamic: a bait-and-switch between Glenn Ford as the paragon of establishment society and Gloria Grahame as the more disreputable figure who earns most of our sympathy. She's introduced in the bedroom, a brassy swoon on the soundtrack, lying on her back with her leg up in the air, looking so sexy and so bored that surely the combination of the two is bound to cause problems. (For the record, Grahame's equally sinful Renoir counterpart, Simone Simon, is introduced dressed prim and proper and petting a kitten).

Yet any sense that she's a reckless sexpot or self-interested schemer is, to say the least, rapidly complicated, as it is an image that the film (and its male characters) prescribe but also give Grahame ample leeway to fight back against. When she hears that money might be tight, she offers to go back to work, to which her husband (Broderick Crawford) snaps that no wife of his is going to be the breadwinner. When she has to use sex to secure his job, his anger is the height of hypocrisy: he sent her into the lion's den and is furious that she got bit. He looks childish, sitting on the bed with his knees above his waist, and it's clear from the first deadly musical sting that she knows the real implications of a request to "put in a good word" upstairs more than he does.

Indeed, between Ford's blankness and Crawford's impotent fury, Grahame becomes Human Desire's most self-possessed figure, the one who best understands how the world of the film works. She spends the first hour navigating a labyrinth of unwanted male attention—the petulant kind, the lascivious kind, the violent kind. Grahame's performance is remarkable, reactive, and then eruptive. Her eyes register a potent, unspoken discomfort when men touch her or make a pass at her, and there are times when the overriding sense is that she'll say whatever needs to be said to make an encounter end quickly. "Most women are unhappy," Grahame tells Ford during their affair. "They just pretend they aren't." To which all Glenn Ford can do is offer that useless smile and say, "That's not true." 

Much has been written in feminist film criticism about the archetype of the femme fatale, that sexually empowered figure who can manipulate men and is inevitably punished for it. The femme fatale, while beastly, can be no guiltier than her targets, if only because the movie she belongs to—Double Indemnity (1944), for instance—has more than enough misanthropy to go around. But precious few films in the American noir canon, not even Gilda (1946), present the making and unmaking of a "femme fatale" so much from the point of view of the femme herself, keeping her the most grounded locus of the film rather than the subject of its mystique. As Grahame tries to lure Ford into committing murder, it's a stock scene: the beautiful, unreliable woman using promises of love and helplessness as her greatest asset. But here, "unreliable" no longer seems quite the right word, because we've seen enough from her perspective to know how much of the calculations are based in truth. Her own climax comes at the end, when, badgered beyond patience, she cops to every femme fatale cliché she's been accused of, then caps it off by saying that if she "had been a man," she would have used women exactly the same way men used her. It's the moment the film has been building to for ninety minutes, and in that final, fatal phrase—"if I had been a man"—there is a defiant sense of inequity, an outburst of truth more cathartic to her than sex or murder. Because the world of the film, and indeed the film itself, will hold her transgressions to a separate standard. 

Thus we have a shift from the democratic follies of a Renoir ensemble to the Langian world of hounded individuals—and we can see how close the addition of Lang's lethal, distrustful gaze is to the nature of film noir. Noir has long since gone from a collection of theorists' observations to a recognizable genre, ever-ready to be revised, nostalgized, and pastiched, and it remains an open question whether the collapse of Old Hollywood’s hang-ups has done the form any good. None of the openly discussed sexual predilections in, say, L.A. Confidential (1997) are as perverse as the unconsummated desire of Lang's Scarlet Street, just as none of the extreme ultra-violence in Sin City (2005) puts my stomach in my throat as much as the (off-camera) coffee pot scene in The Big Heat. It is the art of the build-up and the release, and that the details of both in Human Desire come on such provocatively gendered terms can surprise a modern sensibility—or is that because a "modern sensibility" at the movies is more naive today than Lang was over half a century ago?

Lang would be cool towards Human Desire, as he would be towards a great many of his Hollywood films. Much of its suspense and formal beauty can fade into the noir morass. But in Gloria Grahame's character, and the film's handling of her, the story finds a new home in an America that had its own beastliness to deal with. She is one of the more vivid and fascinating souls inside Lang's machines, bouncing up against the walls. She wants to get out, to leave those walls behind her, to end the film on her own terms even if it means ending the film alone. It is a human desire. In all her actions, there isn't any other kind.

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