Human Desire (1954): Fritz Lang’s Film Noir Version of Zola’s Novel, Starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Broderick Crawford

Loosely based on Emile Zola’s social realist novel, La Bete Humaine, which Jean Renoir had filmed in French in 1938, Human Desire is one of many (but not the best) film noirs that Fritz Lang directed in the 1950s.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Human Desire
Human Desire 1954.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Narrative Structure: Detailed Plot

There is too much melodrama, and not enough sense of menace and fatalistic doom, elements that mark Lang’s better film noirs (The Big Heat, in 1955, also with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame)

Glenn Ford plays Jeff Warren, a Korean War vet, who works as a train engineer alongside Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan), after three years of service.

Alec’s daughter, Ellen (Kathleen Case), now a grown up, is smitten with him for years, but he treats her as a sister.

Enter Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford), a gruff, hard-drinking assistant yard supervisor married to the younger and sassy Vicki (Gloria Grahame). When Carl is fired for being rude, he’s fired.

He pleads with Vicki to see John Owens (Grandon Rhodes), whom she knows from the time her mom was his housekeeper. He hopes that Owens can help him get his job back.

Unbeknownst to Carl, Vicki had been involved with Owens, and she refuses to intervene. Nonetheless, after persistent begging, she reluctantly goes into the city to meet Owens, asking for his help. Vicki implies that she would do everything to get Carl rehired.

When Vicki doesn’t return for hours, Carl suspects she’s been unfaithful. After a violent argument, Carl forces Vicki to write a letter to Owens, setting up a meeting with him in his train compartment. He’s taking the train to Chicago and Carl and Vicki are returning home.

Carl follows Vicki to Owen’s compartment, and kills him with a knife. He then takes Owens’ wallet and watch to make the murder appear to be a robbery. Carl takes the letter Vicki had written, intending to keeping it as insurance against Vicki’s reporting to the police.

Meanwhile, Jeff is hitching a free ride back home and happens to be smoking in the vestibule near Owens’ compartment. Carl makes Vicki entice Jeff, who isn’t acquainted with her, away from the area so that he can leave unseen. Vicki and Jeff share a cigarette and a kiss. At the end of the journey, Jeff realizes that Vicki are married.

Jeff is called as a witness in the murder’s investigation. The train’s passengers that night are asked to stand. When he’s asked if he had seen any of them, Jeff looks at Vicki before saying no.

Vicki and Jeff resume their relationship, and she opens up about Carl’s abusive behavior.  But she doesn’t tell the whole truth, that she’d gone to Owens’ compartment for a liaison.

Jeff questions her lack of distress, when she’d come upon him in the vestibule. Vicki says she’s frightened of Carl’s temper.

Meanwhile, Ellen sells him a ticket to a local dance, hoping he’ll ask her to go, though she knows he’s involved with Vicki.

Jeff tells Vicki he wants to marry her if she leaves her husband. She finally tells the entire truth about Owens’ murder and the letter.  Jeff, the optimistic American believes they can work it all out.

Carl. drinking again, loses his job. Vicki tells Jeff that her husband is selling the house, forcing her to leave town with him. Unable to find the letter, she suspects that Carl has it.  Vicki expresses feelings of doom, when she says, “If only we’d been luckier. If something had happened to him, at the yards.” Jeff understands what she means.

Carl stumbles from Duggan’s Bar all drunk. Jeff follows, clutching a monkey wrench he’s retrieved from a tool locker there. A passing train blocks the view. Did Jeff bludgeon Carl to death?

Jeff tells Vicki’s he couldn’t do it. He accuses Vicki of setting him up to kill her husband. She protests, arguing that if Jeff really loved her, he would’ve killed for her. She equate his Korean war experience with this situation, and Jeff gets upset.  However, he gives her the letter, which he took from the Carl when he was drunk.

Now free to leave Carl and, Vicki gets on the next train, which Jeff is conducting. Carl enters Vicki’s compartment, imploring her not to leave him. He even offers her the letter only to be told that he doesn’t have it.

When Carl accuses her of running away with Jeff.  She denies the charge, but admits she’s in love Jeff.  Carl, angry and jealous, strangles her to death.

The conclusion is not exactly a happy ending, though by standards of film noir, it offers a brighter future for Jeff as he operates the train and thinks about Ellen.

Lang’s movie deviates substantially from Zola’s novel, which received better screen version from Renoir.

There’s not a single sympathetic character in this film, and of the three leads, Gloria Grahame come off the best, displaying her brassy sexuality to an advantage. Human Desire is one of few films in which Grahame plays the female lead; in most others, she was relegated to playing secondary characters, as manifest by her two Oscar nods, and one win (in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952).

Refusing to internalize her victimization as a trophy wife, physically abused by her sexist macho husband, she conveys the sheer disgust she feels towards him especially when he tries to touch him, or even stand close to her.

Grahame, however, was not Lang’s first choice for the part, though they worked well together in The Big Heat, also starring Ford.  Lang favored Rita Hayworth, who was also under contract at Columbia)

Crawford’s interpretation is one-dimensional, emphasizing his brutal jealousy, but never convincing in his declarations of love for his wife.

It would be unfair to blame Ford for delivering an incoherent performance, which reflects the shortcomings of the writing; he comes across as a rather weak and confused man,


Directed by Fritz Lang
Screenplay by Alfred Hayes
Based on the novel La Bête Humaine, 1890 novel by Émile Zola
Produced by Lewis J. Rachmil
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
Edited by Aaron Stell
Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof

Black and white

Production and distribution: Columbia Pictures

Release date: August 6, 1954 (NYC); November 8, 1954 (US)

Running time: 91 minutes


Die Bestie im Menschen, a 1920 German silent film, directed by Ludwig Wolff
La Bête humaine, a 1938 movie directed by Jean Renoir
La Bestia humana, a 1957 Argentine movie, directed by Daniel Tinayre
Cruel Train, a 1995 British TV movie, directed by Malcolm McKay