Human Desire (1954)

Directed by Fritz Lang
Cinematography Burnett Guffey

Human Desire is a 1954 black-and-white film noir directed by Fritz Lang, starring Glenn Ford. It is loosely based on the novel La Bête humaine, by Émile Zola. The story had been filmed twice before: La Bête humaine (1938) directed by Jean Renoir and Die Bestie im Menschen starring Ilka Grüning (1920).


Returning Korean War vet Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) is a train engineer, usually working alongside Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan). Alec’s daughter Ellen (Kathleen Case) is in love with Jeff.

Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) is a gruff, hard-drinking assistant yard supervisor married to the younger and more vibrant Vicki (Gloria Grahame). When Carl is fired for talking back to his boss, he pleads with Vicki to go into the city to see the man she used to work for, John Owens (Grandon Rhodes), a railroad executive who can get Carl his job back. Unbeknownst to Carl, Vicki did more than just work for Owens, and she allows Owens to bed her again in order to get Carl his job.


Carl suspects Vicki and in a violent argument the truth slips out of her. Carl beats her and forces her to write a letter to Owens, setting up a meeting in a train car. On the trip Carl goes with Vicki, barges into the room when Owens opens the door, and kills Owens with a knife.

Jeff, who is taking a comp ride on this run, happens to be having a smoke in the vestibule near Owens’s compartment. Carl makes Vicki go to Jeff as a distraction so Carl can hide himself.

At the inquest for the murder of Owens, Jeff is called as a witness. The various passengers on the train that night are asked to stand. When he’s asked if he saw any of the people that night, Jeff looks intently at Vicki, then answers no.

Vicki and Jeff begin an affair. Jeff wants Vicki to leave Carl and marry him. She finally explains about the killing, and the letter Carl keeps hidden so Vicki will be forced to stay with him. She suggests the only way they’ll ever be free is if Jeff kills Carl, making it look like a drunken accident at the rail yard.

Jeff follows the drunk Carl through the yard. But he returns to Vicki saying he couldn’t do it, and accuses Vicki of setting him up from the start just so he would kill her husband. She protests that she really does love Jeff, but it’s too late. He leaves her, but gives her one thing as he does––the letter, which he took from the drunken Carl without his knowledge.

Vicki is now free to leave Carl. She gets on the next train. But shortly after it leaves the station, Carl enters her compartment, accusing her of running away with Jeff. Vicki denies it and defies Carl, who then realizes he no longer has the letter. When Vicki confronts him with the whole truth about her and Owens, Carl strangles her to death.

Jeff, happily operating the train, has thoughts about taking Ellen to a dance.



Critic Dave Kehr wrote of the film, “Gloria Grahame, at her brassiest, pleads with Glenn Ford to do away with her slob of a husband, Broderick Crawford…A gripping melodrama, marred only by Ford’s inability to register an appropriate sense of doom.” Variety wrote that Lang “goes overboard in his effort to create mood”. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “[T]here isn’t a single character in it for whom it builds up the slightest sympathy—and there isn’t a great deal else in it for which you’re likely to have the least regard.”

Fritz Lang had desperately wanted Peter Lorre to play Jeff Warren, but Lang had treated Lorre so abusively during the making of M (1931) that the actor refused.

Marlon Brando refused the role of Jeff Warren, saying “I cannot believe that the man who gave us the über dark Mabuse, the pathetic child murderer in M (1931) and the futuristic look at society, Metropolis (1927), would stoop to hustling such crap.”

Lang reunites Grahame, Ford for dark, smouldering Zola update

8 May 2001 | by bmacv (Western New York) – See all my reviews

Fresh from their exertions in Fritz Lang’s superheated The Big Heat, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame (joined by Broderick Crawford) reunite for the director’s recension of Zola’s La Bete Humaine. This time, the heat is not so explosive, but this film’s dense, acrid smokes smoulders away to the point of choking claustrophobia. Like Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, the film opens with us criss-crossing a maze of railroad tracks, and the locomotives, cars and switching yards are never far away in this tale of abuse, frustration, adultery and homicides (plural) somewhere out in the prairie heartland. Grahame, when bad, is always good, but she’s never been badder or better than here, as the young wife of the violently jealous Broderick Crawford. Glenn Ford, just mustered out of Korea, gets his brakeman’s job back and chugs right into the middle of this marital discord. Lang tightens the screws slowly and expertly for the full 90 minutes of this midwestern nightmare (the final words of which, unspoken, are: “Trenton makes, the world takes,” read backwards on a railway trestle). This is a canonical work of film noir, left — like too many others — in unviewed obscurity. It’s every bit the equal of The Big Heat or Scarlet Street.



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