Human Desire

Released August 5, 1954: HUMAN DESIRE, starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Broderick Crawford.  Directed by Fritz Lang (Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat).  After losing his job, humandesireBroderick Crawford asks his much younger wife (Gloria Grahame) to put in a good word for him with a wealthy business owner (Grandon Rhodes), whom Grahame has known since childhood.  Grahame is reluctant to meet with Rhodes, but Crawford insists.  After the meeting, Crawford becomes livid when he suspects Grahame of having an affair with Rhodes.  Blinded by rage, he beats her and forces her to write a note to Rhodes arranging a rendezvous, where he ambushes Rhodes and kills him.  Crawford gets away with the murder, but in the aftermath, his marriage to Grahame becomes severely strained.  She wants nothing to do with him, but can’t leave because he threatens to expose the note she wrote, which would implicate her in the murder, so they continue to share a tormented existence in their small home.  Meanwhile, Grahame befriends one of Crawford’s co-workers (Glenn Ford) and they quickly fall in love.  When Crawford loses his job again and plans to move to another town with Grahame, she desperately tries to manipulate Ford into murdering Crawford so she and Ford can continue to be together.  Regardless of the outcome, this will not end well. The film opens with a long and beautifully shot sequence of Ford, who is a train engineer, bringing a train into his home station.  The camera angles from the front, back, and sides of the train as it roars down the track are spectacular, and the decoupling and parking of the engine in the train yard after it arrives is a fascinating bit of train business that we don’t normally get to see.  Trains and the train yard are a significant presence in this film.  Both Ford and Crawford work for the train company and the film is permeated with footage of trains and location shots in and around the yard.  All of the murders take place on trains and even Crawford’s home is located beside the train yard, where the noise of passing trains is ever present.  Although the train theme itself doesn’t have a direct impact on the story, it creates a unique atmospheric backdrop that can’t be ignored.  Ultimately, this film revolves around Gloria Grahame’s painful story arc.  At first glance, it’s tempting to view her as a scheming femme fatale plotting to kill her husband, similar to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, but Grahame’s situation is much more complex and heartbreaking.  She is a tragic figure trapped in a life of misery that started when she was sexually abused by Rhodes as a teenager.  Her subsequent marriage to Crawford was flawed from the beginning, and quickly deteriorated from bad to oppressive.  Crawford is physically abusive, and through blackmail, essentially keeps her prisoner.  With no one to turn to for help, it’s not surprising she desperately clings to Ford and is willing to do anything to be with him.  This story is a sobering commentary on the plight of women in a male dominated world.  And indeed, when Grahame tries to strike out on her own at the end of the film, she pays the ultimate price.  The entire cast is excellent, with Crawford and Grahame in particular, giving genuinely powerful performances.  This was the second film directed by Fritz Lang pairing Ford and Grahame.  The year before, they made The Big Heat, which was a slightly stronger effort, thanks to a taught and tension-filled story.  The story in Human Desire is much more claustrophobic and somber, and Lang was wise to infuse the film with train footage to help impart a sense of motion and momentum.  Although not Lang’s strongest effort, the superb performances make this anguished story very watchable.  We give Human Desire 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.

3.5 Fedoras

Black Angel

Premiered August 2, 1946: BLACK ANGEL, starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, and Peter Lorre.  Directed by Roy William Neill (Eyes of the Underworld, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Woman in Green).  John Phillips is wrongly convicted of the murder of a nightclub singer (Constance Dowling).  blackangelIn a desperate attempt to save him from the electric chair, Phillips’ wife (June Vincent) embarks on a quest to prove his innocence before the execution date.  Her investigation leads to Dowling’s estranged husband (Dan Duryea) who becomes interested when he learns the killer took a brooch he had given to Dowling.  Together, Vincent and Duryea zero in on a shady nightclub owner (Peter Lorre), who was seen visiting Dowling the night she was killed, and come up with a plan to expose him.  For the most part, this film feels like a run-of-the-mill whodunit, albeit with darker overtones.  The first two-thirds plod along slowly with minimal story progression, as we spend a significant amount of time watching Vincent and Duryea get to know each other before they eventually attempt to uncover proof of Lorre’s guilt.  Unfortunately, the lukewarm on-screen chemistry between Duryea and Vincent and the lack of any real suspense makes for a rather ho-hum affair.  But thankfully, the story gets a revitalizing shot in the arm during the last third, when, just as we’re lulled into thinking we have it all figured out, events take an unexpected turn and previous assumptions about the murder are called into question.  The mystery ultimately resolves itself a little too neatly, but at least we were treated to a much needed foray into creative storytelling in the home stretch.  Dan Duryea was a staple of classic film noir and is always a joy to watch on screen.  In Black Angel, he steps out of his typical oily roles to play a nice guy, which is commendable, but not exactly an ideal fit.  His natural ingratiating manner, that serves him so well in sleazier parts, gives him an aura of inappropriate insincerity in this film, especially during the more intimate scenes with Vincent.  For her part, Vincent doesn’t offer up much screen magic.  Mired in the lumbering plot, her range of emotions are limited to sadness or despair, with only a brief respite during a couple of musical numbers.  Although Black Angel is largely unspectacular, it does deliver a competent murder mystery, benefitted by a gratifying plot boost in the final stages.  There are many better noirs worth watching before you sit down with this one, but eventually, it’s worth a look.  We give Black Angel 2.5 out of 5 fedoras.

2.5 Fedoras