2017 Film Essays

War and Domestic Violence in Fritz Lang’s ‘Human Desire’

In 1953, the filmmaking trio of Fritz Lang, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame made one of the essential entries into the canon of film noir, The Big Heat. A hard-boiled narrative of vengeance and vigilantism, Ford’s police lieutenant Dave Bannion relentlessly pursues the gangsters responsible for the murder of his wife, eventually helped in his quest by Grahame’s mob girl with some of her own scores to settle. The most iconic moment comes halfway through, when a vicious crook played by Lee Marvin throws a pot of hot coffee in Grahame’s face, the sizzle heard off screen in one of classic Hollywood’s most intensely sadistic acts of aggression in all of noir.

As was (and still is, of course) the fashion of the times, the success of The Big Heat led Columbia Pictures to commission the same filmmaking team to get together again, this time on an adaptation of French author Émile Zola’s novel La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast), written in 1890. The novel had been adapted once before, in 1938, by French realist Jean Renoir, into a film which stands alongside Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937) and Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows (1938) as proto-noirs, filled with dark cinematography and morally compromised characters living on the razor’s edge. All three movies star Jean Gabin, French cinema’s quintessential noir anti-hero.

Lang’s film, called Human Desire (1954), coming well into the second decade of noir’s stylistic ascendance, operates as both a new adaptation of the novel and also an American remake of Renoir’s film, transplanting the setting to the California coast and reflecting the historical moment immediately following the conclusion of U.S. involvement in the Korean War. That conflict, in which American troops fought from 1950 through 1953, forms a backdrop for situating Human Desire and its protagonist in its historical moment, but also for tracking the evolution of the troubled noir anti-hero over the cycle’s life.

Human Desire, like its earlier iterations on the page and on screen, takes place largely in a working class environment, where its characters depend on the railroad shipping industry for their economic survival. Into this space returns Jeff Warren (Ford), a Korean War veteran back from three years in combat, reclaiming his job as a freight train engineer, making runs between San Francisco and other suburban towns in northern California. He flirts with his fellow engineer’s daughter Ellen (Kathleen Case), who has held a candle for him while he was away fighting. But the virginal Ellen is no match for Vicki Buckley (Grahame), the seductive wife of the brutish Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford), an older, hot-tempered railyard man.

Things get more complicated for the trio when Carl, after losing his job at the yard in a fit of pique, asks Vicki to visit a former flame, John Owens (Grandon Rhodes), a man with some influence, to get him his job back. Carl soon suspects Vicki has slept with Owens, and makes her his accomplice in Owens’ murder, which Carl commits aboard a train. Carl blackmails Vicki with her complicity in the crime, and forces her to ensure Jeff’s silence as well after he sees the couple on the train the evening the murder is committed. A seemingly typical noir plot ensues, as Vicki, feeling further entrapped by the volatile Carl, courts Jeff and attempts to lure him into murdering Carl. Ultimately, Jeff decides not to kill him; Carl discovers the plot and strangles Vicki, also aboard the train, while Jeff realizes that it is Ellen, not Vicki, with whom he really belongs.

The film’s conclusion deviates mightily from the noir plots of the 1940s, wherein the equivalent Jeff character, trapped by the femme fatale’s seductive promise of illicit sex and a quick payday, would ultimately pay for his subversion of American culture’s dominant moral strictures either with his life or his freedom, ending up a corpse on the ground or behind bars. Instead, Jeff comes to his senses and doesn’t conspire with the desperate Vicki to murder her husband, and, in the film’s final images, seems to indicate a desire to settle down with the good, wholesome representative of 1950s on-screen femininity in Ellen. In this way, the film represents an evolution in the noir universe, which more often than not gives its characters no quarter. Any wrong step, any straying from the path, is usually punished severely by a dark, unforgiving world animated largely by its predominant cynicism and bitter irony. In Human Desire, this is not so.

The narrative deviation from noir convention is also a departure from the film’s ancestors. In both the novel and the Renoir film, the Jeff Warren character, called Jacques Lantier, is killed aboard the train. In the film, Lantier (Gabin) commits suicide, hurling himself from the speeding locomotive after becoming wracked with guilt over murdering Severine (Simone Simon) in a psychotic fit of rage. The Hollywood noir hero, played by Ford, is allowed to change his life, rather than stay on a predestined path to his own demise. In Human Desire, the train tracks carry its hero into the sunny paradise of the American Dream, not the depths of noir’s endless night.

The psychotic violence in the film is instead borne by Carl, the older, insecure, jealousy-ridden husband played by Crawford with his signature gruff menace, always laced with an undercurrent of pathos. It is he, not Jeff, who kills Vicki, choking her life away with his bare hands, staring with fury into her eyes. Carl is the irredeemable man, gone too far down the noir path to come back.

Carl’s age is an important signifier of why this may be. The older, wearier Crawford was only five years Ford’s senior, but his heavy frame and sagging features invest him with a beaten-down quality that stands in stark contrast to the clean, fresh-faced leading man. Though much is made of the age difference in the film between Carl and Vicki, it is the age difference between Carl and Jeff that is most illuminating for the change in the noir ethos within the film’s narrative.

If Carl is roughly five years older than Jeff, then he is just right for service in World War II. Though such combat experience is not outwardly mentioned in the film’s dialogue, it is almost always a safe assumption about men of a certain age in noir films to assign them veteran status. Several of the crooks in John Huston’s heist classic The Asphalt Jungle (1950), for instance, are almost certainly veterans, though the dialogue does not overtly mention it; the same is true of Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949), as Burt Lancaster’s Steve Thompson comes back to his small California town, presumably from military service, before agreeing to participate in an armored car robbery. In Human Desire, Crawford’s Carl is almost certainly a veteran, bearing with him the marks of post-traumatic stress disorder that plagued many other noir characters. The signs are all there — the aggressive tone, the violent outbursts, the paranoia about his much younger wife, who has been up to something while he looked the other way. Carl is another in the long line of noir’s damaged men lashing out against a highly ordered world into which they no longer fit.

Jeff, on the other hand, is not so damaged by his military service in Korea. He has seemingly adjusted well upon returning, and has no difficulty interacting with others, many of whom thank him for his service. Though he is tempted by Vicki’s raw sexuality, and carries on an affair with her, he stops short of murdering Carl, where previous noir anti-heroes, veterans of WWII, did not.

A key plot device highlights this point of difference. When Vicki attempts to persuade Jeff to murder Carl, she deliberately references Jeff’s combat experience, drawing a comparison. If Jeff killed men in the war, surely it can’t be all that different to kill Carl. Jeff is momentarily convinced by Vicki’s entreaties, and stalks the drunken Carl through the train yard at night. The scene fades to black, and comes back up in a hotel room where Vicki waits for news of Carl’s death. Jeff enters, and upbraids her: “The war, huh? You thought I could do it because of that. Well, there’s a difference. In the war you fire into the darkness, something moving on a ridge. Position. Uniform. Enemy. But a man coming home, helpless, drunk… that takes a different kind of killing.”

The dialogue signifies this film’s distinct differentiation from other noirs in its rejection of violent equivocation. Previous film noir characters have seen their immoral, criminal behavior at least partially explained by their trauma suffered on the battlefields in Europe or in the Pacific. 1950s men like Jeff, returning from Korea, have learned to tell the difference between the role of men in the jungles of war and the concrete jungles of home.

Lang’s film emphasizes its generational division in its final moments, which intercut Carl’s disturbing murder of Vicki with Jeff’s untroubled operation of the train. All three are aboard the same locomotive. Carl and Vicki, vestiges of 1940s noir, struggle in a sleeper car similar to the one they were in when they collaborated in Owens’ murder earlier in the film. Jeff, on the other hand, drives the train, firmly in control, and looks down at an invitation to a community dance given to him by Ellen. While one generation of veterans cannot move on, and is doomed to forever replay the violent traumas that have shattered their lives, the other generation is ready to build the new America. The final shot, lifted from Renoir, is a point-of-view frame from the front of the train’s engine. In Renoir’s film, the tracks, disappearing into a point, were laden with dread. In Lang’s, they are the future, which is bright and full of romantic possibility.

By the tail end of the Korean conflict, it was an unpopular undertaking, having driven its chief architect President Harry Truman’s poll numbers into the tank. Classic Hollywood cinema, especially in a conservative decade like the 1950s, dominated by cookie cutter images of suburban placidity on television and on the big screen, was often unwilling to confront the dark underside of its broader social context.

Human Desire points a hopeful, if naïve, way forward for men returning home from war. In providing Jeff Warren a light at the end of a tunnel, the film reaches for a future when veterans would smoothly integrate into society, and though they may be tempted to stray from the righteous path, they would ultimately conquer their traumas and live happy, fulfilled lives free of internal and external strife. Another divisive American war in Asia, waiting to begin just 11 years in the future, would demonstrate that perhaps the noir vision of earlier films leveled greater insight into the difficulties returning veterans would continue to face in the aftermath of the horrors of war.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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