Human DesireOverview -
A solid but not exceptional film noir from director Fritz Lang, Human Desire examines jealousy, lust, and violence in the rail yard of a small town. Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Broderick Crawford comprise the combustible trio whose fiery emotions explode in this uneven but strangely compelling adaptation of an Emile Zola novel. Excellent video and audio transfers and attractive packaging distinguish KLSC's Blu-ray presentation of this intriguing, off-beat film. Recommended.
Legendary director Fritz Lang (Metropolis), cinema’s “Master of Darkness,” reunites with his stars of The Big Heat, Glenn Ford (Gilda) and Gloria Grahame (Naked Alibi), for this pitch-black film noir based on Émile Zola’s La Bête humaine. Korean War vet Jeff Warren (Ford) returns to his job as a railroad engineer, and quickly succumbs to his boss’s wife, Vicki Buckley (played with frank, unvarnished carnality by Grahame). Thus begins a tangled web of suspicion, sex and murder involving Vicki and her brutish husband Carl (Broderick Crawford, All the King’s Men). Adapted by Alfred Hayes (Clash by Night) and shot by Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde), Lang’s spellbinding masterpiece evokes a powerful emotional landscape of greed, jealousy and Human Desire.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Fritz Lang directed so many classic film noirs over the course of his career - many cinema historians credit him with inventing the genre - it's easy to nitpick the few noirs he made that fall slightly below his lofty standard. Human Desire is one of those borderline movies that exhibits glimmers of greatness, but just misses making the grade. While this lusty, taut triangle drama might have earned any number of other, lesser directors hearty praise, it can't quite stand alongside such iconic Lang fare as The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, Man Hunt, Ministry of Fear, and The Big Heat.
Make no mistake, Lang brings to Human Desire his customary artistry and wrings from his cast vivid, emotionally charged performances that resonate. Atmosphere abounds, as Lang maximizes the railroad setting and deftly melds gritty naturalism with noir's more stylized elements. What holds Human Desire in check and keeps it from flourishing is its hard-to-swallow story.
Just back from a three-year tour of duty in Korea, Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) moves in with his fellow train engineer Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan), Alec's wife Vera (Diane DeLaire), and their grown-up daughter Ellen (Kathleen Case) while he readjusts to civilian life. Ellen has blossomed into a beautiful young woman and clearly has a serious crush on the affable, handsome Jeff, but he rejects her good-girl charm in favor of the bad-girl allure of Vicki Buckley (Gloria Grahame), wife of Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford), the burly, boisterous assistant rail yard manager. What starts as a playful flirtation between the two devolves into a tense, fraught mess when Jeff discovers Vicki helped her abusive, insanely jealous husband murder a railroad muckety-muck with whom she had a sexual dalliance.
Instead of running in the other direction and into the arms of the virginal Ellen, who all but throws herself at his feet, Jeff dives deeper into a relationship with Vicki that satisifes his pent-up animalistic desires but leads him down a dark path. Vicki is desperate to free herself from Carl's guilt-ridden alcoholic rages and vociferous threats and sees Jeff as her ticket out, but is he blinded enough by passion to do her nefarious bidding? And to what end?
Based on the lurid 1890 novel La Bête humaine by Emile Zola, which was filmed in 1938 by French director Jean Renoir just prior to his masterpiece The Rules of the Game, Human Desire is populated by unlikeable characters whose rash, impulsive actions rarely ring true. The serviceable script by two-time Oscar nominee Alfred Hayes updates the tale of animal urges and vengeful violence and peppers it with plenty of titillating sexual innuendos, but questionable motivations and a major plot hole derail it.
Originally envisioned as a vehicle to reunite Ford with his Gilda co-star Rita Hayworth, Human Desire turned out to be a follow-up to the previous year's highly successful The Big Heat. Ford, Grahame, and Lang joined forces once again, but couldn't quite duplicate the scorching results. The casting of Grahame, however, proved fortuitous. Though Hayworth impeccably played one of the most memorable femme fatales in film history in The Lady from Shanghai, it's tough to imagine her tackling Vicki with the same conviction as Grahame, who specialized in playing cheap, tawdry, good-time dames who'd been around the block a few times and had the scars to prove it. With her customary abandon, Grahame throws herself into the role and files one of her finest performances.
Ford projects the same cocksure attitude that catapulted him to stardom in Gilda as well as the feeling of ennui and disenchantment that afflicted many GIs upon their return to the U.S. Jeff wants to jump back into life and catch up on all that he's missed, and by diving into an illicit relationship with Vicki he satisfies both his long-dormant libido and thirst for adrenaline that combat instilled in him. Though Ford and Grahame lack the chemistry he and Hayworth share, they're a combustible pair, and despite their characters' assertions to the contrary, it's obvious that sex, not love, drives their relationship.
Crawford chews the scenery with a brash, brusque, blustery portrayal and Buchanan offers stellar support as Jeff's best buddy, though during his scenes with Ford on the train, images of his most famous role as the lazy, mischievous Uncle Joe in the long-running, railroad-centric sitcom Petticoat Junction instantly spring to mind. Case is the weak link as the too-good-to-be-true Ellen and her insipid scenes stall the film's engine. While Case is a competent actress, the fact that she's both prettier and sexier than Grahame makes it even more difficult to fathom why Jeff would continually reject Ellen and gravitate toward the trampy Vicki instead.
Human Desire plays better on a second viewing, but still struggles to overcome the deficiencies of its plot. (A proper police investigation would have revealed the killer's identity in a New York minute, wrapping up the story before it even really begins.) Though fans of Lang and the actors will get a kick out of this over-the-top melodrama that ends abruptly on a dissonant note, the film's pleasures - much like those of a passionate tryst - are fleeting.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The KLSC edition of Human Desire arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case with reversible cover art inside a sleeve with matte finish. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
There's no mention of any remastering on the disc's packaging, but the source material used for the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is quite good. While I can't say for certain that this is the same master used by Eureka Entertainment for its 2019 Blu-ray release, there's a strong probability it is. Clarity, contrast, and grain levels all fluctuate, but the overall presentation exudes a fetching film-like feel and faithfully captures the stark cinematography of Burnett Guffey, who won an Oscar the previous year for From Here to Eternity and would take home another one 13 years later for Bonnie and Clyde. Blacks are lush most of the time (a few shots look slightly anemic), the crisp whites never bloom, and a wide gray scale enhances depth. Excellent shadow delineation keeps crush to a minimum, sharp close-ups nicely showcase pores, sweat, and wrinkles, and only a few errant marks dot the otherwise pristine print. If you already own the Eureka edition of Human Desire, I would surmise a double-dip is not necessary, but fans who still have the 2010 DVD will certainly want to upgrade to this very satisfying rendering.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track provides clear, well-modulated sound. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Daniele Amfitheatrof's melodramatic score without any distortion, while strong bass frequencies enhance the rumbling, rattling train noise that supplies much of the movie's atmosphere. Sonic accents like facial slaps and train whistles are distinct and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. No distortion is present and any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle have been erased.
Surprisingly, there's no audio commentary on the disc. Human Desire could certainly benefit from one and the decision not to include a commentary seems strange, considering many lesser-known and less worthy KLSC titles have included commentary tracks. That said, an appreciation of Human Desire by actress Emily Mortimer is a welcome addition and it's always nice to see the original theatrical trailer.
Featurette: "Terror and Desire with Emily Mortimer" (HD, 10 minutes) - The acclaimed actress expresses her admiration for Human Desire and discusses the film's themes, its claustrophobic atmosphere, and Lang's German Expressionist roots in this engaging interview that features a plethora of clips. Mortimer also talks about the allure of Grahame and how she keeps her cards close to her vest throughout the picture. Why Mortimer was selected to examine Human Desire is a bit of a mystery, but her remarks are cogent and insightful.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - "It isn't love, it's human desire" says the narrator in the film's original preview that highlights Grahame's femme fatale character.
Human Desire is a solid, entertaining noir that never quite rises to the standard we've come to expect from director Fritz Lang. Ford, Grahame, and Crawford give the material their all, but their characters often seem more like cardboard cutouts than flesh and blood. Excellent video and audio transfers distinguish Kino's Blu-ray presentation of this moody, melodramatic tale of infidelity, jealousy, and murder. Recommended.
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