“I guess I’m not much of a woman.”
In Human Desire, Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) is fired from his job as assistant yardmaster with a train company. Despondent over the loss of employment, he begs his wife to contact an old friend, Owens, a wealthy company executive, and ask for his old job back. Carl’s wife, Vicki (Gloria Grahame) tries to wheedle her way out of doing this favour, but she finally agrees. Vicki gets Carl’s job back, but once Carl’s plan is successful, he conveniently begins to wonder just what Vicki had to do to win Owens’ favour. In a jealous rage, Carl beats a confession out of Vicki.
When Carl learns that Owens is boarding a train, he drags Vicki along for the ride. Carl viciously murders Owens implicating Vicki in the process. Leaving the scene, Vicki meets Jeff (Glenn Ford) a train engineer who has just returned from three years of combat duty in Korea. There’s instant chemistry between Vicki and Jeff. Jeff could implicate Vicki and Carl in the murder, but when Jeff lies during the inquest, Carl and Vicki are free and clear. Jeff and Vicki plunge into an adulterous affair. Jeff, a war hero who’s faced combat is now involved in a love triangle with lethal consequences.
As a Gloria Grahame fan, I was delighted to find a film that exploits her considerable talents. Vicki is a cipher–sullen, sultry, and underestimated by all the men in her life. Her first scene illustrates the incongruity of her marriage to Carl. He arrives home despondent after being fired, and she’s lolling on the bed eating bon bons. He’s depressed, and she’s showing off her new stockings. It seems odd that a woman like Vicki would be with a man like Carl and later in the film, Vicki explains her marriage: “I wanted a home. I wanted to belong some place.” Stuck in a small town with few choices, Vicki selected Carl because “he looked big, solid, decent….” Vicki is a complex character who shows her true colours in two scenes–one scene takes place with Jeff when she rails at him, and the other scene takes place when she finally tells Carl just what she thinks of him. Vicki is a woman who’s learned to manage in a man’s world. She can be what the men in her life want her to be. But once boxed into a role, her true feelings, which run just under the surface of her polite behaviour, are another matter entirely. She feels like a commodity and tells Carl that women have “different faces” so that men can tell them apart.
Human Desire is directed by Fritz Lang and based on the Emile Zola novel, La Bete Humaine. This film noir gem deserves a DVD transfer before it fades into obscurity. Many scenes are set on trains, and there’s plenty of atmosphere with nighttime smoke and the lonely call of train whistles. Gloria Grahame fans–don’t miss this one.