Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) has returned from the Korean War to his job as a railroad engineer. Although Ellen (Kathleen Case), the sweet daughter of Jeff's longtime coworker (Edgar Buchanan), has a crush on him, Jeff ignores her in favor of illicit trysts with Vicki Buckley (Gloria Grahame).
Jeff's in for a whole heap of trouble, as not only is Vicki married, she recently stood by as her husband Carl (Broderick Crawford) committed a murder, and now she's trying to cover it up.
Of the three characters, only Jeff retains much audience sympathy, and that's based more on his potential than on how he actually acts. Jeff has the possibility of living a perfectly nice life with Ellen -- as he describes it, filled with his job, fishing, and nights at the movies.
Instead of embracing the life he'd envisioned during the war, Jeff lies, sneaks around, and even contemplates murder. Vicki may have been sexy to an extent, but it's simply hard to understand how Jeff goes so over the edge for her. Ford's role seems a bit underwritten in this regard. On the plus side, Ford looked terrific at this stage of his career and was a very handsome man.
Vicki initially seems like a reasonably caring wife, but before too long is revealed as a world class manipulator. In fact, although she at first seems to be a victim, by the time the film is over one suspects that she wasn't all that sorry about the ghastly crime she watched her husband commit. She may well have wanted to get back at the target of Carl's rage and jealousy for her own reasons.
I like Grahame fine in certain roles, especially in somewhat more limited doses, but here I had to wonder about her appeal, other than looking good in a tight sweater; her face is somewhat haggard -- which actually matches up well with what her character has been through -- and her childish voice is annoying. Add to that her perpetual "poor me" dialogue, often delivered staring into space, and it's hard to understand why Jeff, sap that he is, is so driven to spend time with her.
Broderick Crawford's Carl never has the audience sympathy for a minute, and it's just not very interesting watching his character, a drunken wife beater and killer. During the scenes where he staggered around drunk, it was all I could do not to hit fast-forward on my remote.
These criticisms aside, there is still quite a bit to recommend the film, which was directed by Fritz Lang. For starters, much of the action is set on trains. I love train movies about as much as plane movies, and there are some very exciting, creatively filmed train travel sequences.
The film as a whole is quite visually interesting, whether it's the trains, the gritty rail yard, the interiors of the working class houses of the railroad employees, or Jeff and Vicki hiding in the shadows. Strictly from the standpoint of visual design, the movie looks great and is a pleasure to watch. The black and white photography was by Burnett Guffey.
The bottom line is that the film was absorbing and thought provoking, and I was glad I invested 91 minutes in watching it, but these were not the most compelling film noir characters I've ever come across. Usually when a noir hero falls hard for a dame, the viewers understand why, and I never quite got that here, nor did we have a very interesting villain.
HUMAN DESIRE was the second teaming of Lang, Ford, and Grahame in a two-year period, following THE BIG HEAT, a 1953 release. In his biography of his father, Peter Ford discloses that while his father and Grahame had been merely coworkers making THE BIG HEAT, they had an affair while making HUMAN DESIRE, which Glenn Ford said lasted "the time it took to shoot the movie."
HUMAN DESIRE is available on DVD as part of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Vol. II collection. The print is excellent. It's accompanied by a trailer and a featurette.
Additionally, the movie has been released on VHS.
HUMAN DESIRE can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.
A trailer is here. Curiously, it's missing the onscreen words which are in the trailer in the DVD set.
Despite my reservations, HUMAN DESIRE is a movie which film noir fans should see and evaluate. For other perspectives, visit Twenty Four Frames and Noir of the Week.
Update: And here's a post by someone who really loves the movie, Jennifer Baldwin at Libertas Magazine.