Released March 30, 1953: JEOPARDY, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, and Ralph Meeker. Directed by John Sturges (The Sign of the Ram, The People Against O’Hara, Bad Day at Black Rock). Barry Sullivan embarks on a family road trip deep into Baja California with his wife (Barbara Stanwyck) and young son (Lee Aaker). Stanwyck’s opening voice over expresses the joy of taking to the open road, and conveys the wonderment of Tijuana’s carnival-like atmosphere and desolate openness of Baja California. It all sounds delightfully optimistic and freeing until they stop to camp at an isolated beach where Stanwyck’s narrative turns ominous as she describes a dilapidated old jetty that will soon play a big part in ruining the family vacation. Things go awry when Aaker explores the jetty and gets his foot stuck in the planks. After Sullivan climbs out to rescue him, a portion of the jetty collapses, pinning Sullivan’s leg under a large piling at the waters edge. Unable to free himself, Sullivan instructs Stanwyck to drive back to an abandoned gas station they passed earlier to find some heavy rope. Meanwhile Sullivan remains trapped at the beach with Aakers, as the steadily rising tide threatens to submerge him. The family’s plight only gets worse when Stanwyck encounters a murdering escaped convict (Ralph Meeker) at the empty gas station. On the run from the police, he wastes no time kidnapping Stanwyck and commandeering her car. Despite Stanwyck’s pleas, he refuses to go to the beach to save Sullivan. The remainder of this rather short film focuses on Stanwyck’s attempts to convince the violent and selfish Meeker to help save her husband, while at the same time, the film’s flaws gradually become apparent. Since half the movie was spent setting up the family vacation, very little time remains to properly build drama around Stanwyck’s predicament. We get short vignettes of Stanwyck and Meeker driving the dusty roads of Baja California, interspersed with lackluster scenes of Sullivan helplessly pinned at the beach. The lack of in-depth storytelling results in many missed opportunities to generate tangible suspense. For example, early in the film we are deliberately shown Sullivan’s gun being placed in the glove compartment of the car, signaling this will be important later in the story. But when Meeker kidnaps Stanwyck, he stumbles onto the gun almost immediately and takes it for himself, eliminating any tension around its potential use by Stanwyck. It would’ve been much more interesting to keep the gun hidden for a time, holding out hope that Stanwyck might get to it. One can imagine how Alfred Hitchcock might have leveraged this situation far more adeptly. Another aspect that undercuts the edge-of-your-seat involvement is Stanwyck’s defiantly tough character. We desperately want to see her overcome Meeker and we share her disappointment each time she is thwarted, but her character is so emotionally resilient, that she barely seems affected by her situation. In one scene, she even takes a casual cigarette break with Meeker. With subtle indication that’s typical of the era, it’s intimated that Meeker eventually takes advantage of Stanwyck sexually, but even this is initiated by Stanwyck as a means of trying to save her husband. While it’s encouraging to see a strong female lead on screen, Stanwyck’s lack of emotional vulnerability only mitigates her sense of peril and thus, our involvement. The final blow that cripples this film is the unexpectedly abrupt about-face by Meeker at the end of the movie. For no credible reason, he suddenly chooses an honorable course of action, disregarding his previously well-established selfish impulses. This sudden bad-guy/good-guy flip is not only out of place, but it robs us of the satisfaction of seeing a reprehensible villain get his comeuppance at the height of his deplorable worst. In the end, Jeopardy offers a mildly suspenseful story, highlighted by some attractive scenery of Baja California, but ultimately the film leaves us asking, “Is that all there is?” We give Jeopardy 2 out of 5 fedoras.
Released March 25, 1954: MAKE HASTE TO LIVE, starring Dorothy McGuire, Stephen McNally, and Mary Murphy. Directed by William A. Seiter (You Were Never Lovelier, Lover Come Back, Borderline). This film opens with a disturbingly creepy scene in which a shadowy figure enters Dorothy McGuire’s home in the middle of the night while she sleeps. Making his way to her bedroom, he stands in the dark, watching her. McGuire is eventually startled out of her slumber by the intruder’s presence, but finds nothing when she inspects the house. However, in the distance we hear someone get into a car and drive off. This eerie introduction establishes the dire condition of McGuire’s life. We come to learn that nearly twenty years ago, she lived in Chicago where she fell in love with, and married, a violent gangster (Stephen McNally). She did her best to endure McNally’s lifestyle and abuse, but decided to flee the marriage when she discovered she was pregnant, refusing to raise her child in a malevolent environment. Shortly thereafter, McNally was involved in the accidental death of a woman, but due to the condition of the body, she couldn’t be positively identified, so the authorities assumed it was McGuire, and McNally was sentenced to twenty years for murdering his wife. McGuire was too afraid to return to Chicago to prove McNally didn’t kill her, and eventually settled in Candlewood, NM, where she ran the local paper and raised her daughter (Mary Murphy), never telling anyone about her past. Twenty years later, her worst fears are realized when McNally is paroled and shows up in Candlewood, pretending to be her long lost brother. Bent on revenge, he moves into her home, takes all her money and savings, wins over his “niece”, and threatens to kill McGuire, who now finds herself desperate to get away once again. Dorothy McGuire’s performance is the centerpiece of this film. She shines as a protective mother who will do almost anything to ensure no harm comes to her daughter. Living under extreme pressure, she must balance her seemingly normal external life against the strain of McNally’s increasingly threatening demands. McGuire’s innate sincerity and inner moral strength keep us invested in the story and we can’t help but root for her to prevail in this impossible situation that has no apparent way out. For his part, McNally presents an insidiously menacing foe. Outwardly cordial and friendly, but constantly scheming, he manages to stay one step ahead of any ideas McGuire has to extricate herself and her daughter from his oppressive presence. However, in spite of the compelling story and McGuire’s stellar performance, the film doesn’t deliver the expected level of tension or suspense. McGuire’s ordeal is distressing, but the film stops short of making the audience squirm with discomfort. This is likely due to the prevailing censorship rules of the era. Nowadays, McGuire’s predicament would be depicted with much more harrowing realism, which isn’t necessarily an improvement, but some added tension would enhance the overall narrative. Working in the film’s favor are the many location shots in New Mexico. Even by the mid-1950s, Candlewood and Albuquerque appear to be nothing more than small frontier towns, and the archeological excavation sites in the nearby Native American pueblos provide a memorable and unique setting. As often happens in films of this type, the climactic finale wraps up a little too quickly and neatly, but not before tossing in an unexpected twist of misdirection. In the final sequence, McGuire leads an unwitting McNally to the edge of a bottomless pit within the pueblo labyrinths, presenting the perfect opportunity to cleanly do away with him once and for all. The seeds for this outcome were planted early in the film when we were introduced to the mysterious pit, and it seems like the obvious culmination. But unexpectedly, McGuire’s strong moral compass takes the ending in a different direction, which may disappoint some viewers, but when viewed in context, stays true to the character’s inner motivations. Look for Edgar Buchanan and Carolyn Jones in small supporting parts. Both would achieve notoriety as stars of 1960s TV sitcoms Petticoat Junction (1963-70) and The Addams Family (1964-66) respectively. We give Make Haste to Live 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Released February 24, 1954: BAIT, starring Cleo Moore, Hugo Haas, and John Agar. Directed by Hugo Haas (Pickup, One Girl’s Confession, Hit and Run). Co-written, acted, and directed by Hugo Haas, a self-made auteur who was never able to transcend B-film mediocrity, Bait is an odd little film that barely qualifies as film noir. Haas plays an old prospector searching for a gold mine that he lost several years prior, when he and his partner were caught in a severe snowstorm and his partner died. Every summer, Haas ventures back into the mountains in search of his mine, often taking a partner for assistance. This time, he’s convinced young John Agar to accompany him with the promise of splitting whatever gold they find 50/50. Once in the mountains, Agar and Haas make a home for themselves in a small abandoned cabin, and it doesn’t take long for them to stumble onto the lost mine and begin digging for gold. Intoxicated by the abundance of gold they collect, both men are stricken with gold fever. Haas wants to renege on his 50/50 deal, while Agar becomes feverishly obsessed with the lustrous gold dust. At this point, the story is poised for some profound drama and intense conflict. But what we get instead, is a far-fetched plot that is not only ridiculously implausible but also poorly executed. Haas knows that Agar is sweet on Cleo Moore, an ostracized single mother who works at the general store where Haas and Agar stock up on supplies, so he hatches an elaborate scheme to maneuver Agar into a situation where Haas can justifiably kill him. First Haas, who’s old enough to be Moore’s father, spontaneously proposes to her and Moore accepts! Next, he moves Moore into the cabin with the two men and refuses to show her any affection in the hopes that she will become starved for attention. Then he orchestrates situations in which Moore and Agar can spend time together to foster their mutual attraction. And finally, he pretends to leave them alone for an extended period of time, hoping to trap them in bed together, so he has a viable excuse to shoot and kill Agar. Not only is this preposterous storyline absurd and improbable, starting with Moore’s rapid acceptance of Haas’ marriage proposal, but the pacing is so ploddingly slow, that any meaningful tension is sucked right out of the plot. There are far too many scenes of veiled dialog between the three characters that ultimately amount to nothing, and the sexual tension between Agar and Moore is never allowed to reach a level of unbearable awkwardness befitting their claustrophobic situation. The overall premise of two men in an isolated cabin, forced to rely on one another to work the mine, but mistrusting each other when reaping the rewards, is fascinating and filled dramatic potential. And the notion of having a woman come between them adds an intriguing twist. But Bait wastes this potential on a misguided storyline that is hopelessly contrived and lacking in tension. We give Bait 1.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Released February 12, 1943: JOURNEY INTO FEAR, starring Joseph Cotten, Dolores del Rio, and Orson Welles. Directed by Norman Foster (Scotland Yard, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Woman on the Run). Joseph Cotten is an American munitions dealer traveling through Turkey, who stops in Istanbul before flying home the next morning. Cotten has valuable information to take back to his company that will help Turkey’s war effort against the Nazis. However, while in Istanbul, an attempt is made on his life, so the head of the Turkish secret police (Orson Welles) arranges to have Cotten smuggled out on a cargo ship to escape his assassins. At first it seems like the plan is a success, but not long after the ship leaves port, Cotten soon finds himself in peril once again. This is a highly atmospheric film, populated with distinctive characters and exquisite black and white visuals. The opening sequence in which assassin Jack Moss prepares to go out for the evening while listening to a scratchy phonograph in his tiny hotel room is wonderfully gritty and oozes with dark textures. Moss himself, is perhaps the most memorable character in the film, even though he doesn’t utter one single word of dialog. His Coke-bottle glasses, heavy-eyed gaze, obsession with music, and matter-of-fact pursuit of his target, create an unforgettably quirky villain. Cotten, who co-wrote the screenplay with Welles, delivers a somewhat low-key performance as a confused and indecisive man trying to stay alive in unfamiliar surroundings. Fortunately, Cotten’s substantial screen presence helps to overcome any lack of charisma in his performance. On the other hand, Dolores del Rio offers up plenty of smoldering charm and charisma as a cabaret dancer who befriends Cotten on the cargo ship. However, her role in the story is ambiguous at best and largely irrelevant. She ends up being nothing more than a tantalizing distraction, which is an unfortunate waste of a top-billed actor. The rest of the cast is made up of a wonderful collection of colorful characters, most with exotic accents and conspicuous idiosyncrasies. Among them are Everett Sloane and a young Agnes Moorehead. Cotten interacts with nearly all of them during his journey, which can be interesting to watch, but also creates confusion in the story, possibly mirroring Cotten’s own disoriented state of mind. Journey Into Fear is an interesting but somewhat frustrating film. For all its expressive atmosphere, foreign intrigue, and richness of character, it never really manages to bring you to the edge of your seat. The level of suspense rises occasionally, but it feels like the film never achieves its true potential and may leave some viewers disappointed. We give Journey Into Fear 3 out 5 fedoras.
Released February 6, 1947: BLIND SPOT, starring Chester Morris, Constance Dowling, and Steven Geray. Directed by Robert Gordon (Black Eagle, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The Rawhide Trail). Chester Morris is a penniless writer who refuses to compromise his integrity and write books with mass appeal. He drowns himself in alcohol to numb the humiliation of begging his publisher (William Forrest) for some much needed cash. There is no love lost between Morris and Forrest, and when Morris drunkenly barges into Forrest’s office, he interrupts a meeting between Forrest and Steven Geray, a popular mystery writer who is considerably more successful than Morris. Forrest refuses to give Morris any money and chides him for not writing popular material like Geray. Morris responds by demonstrating how trivial it is to write for the masses, and instantly comes up with an idea for a mystery in which a man is found stabbed to death in a room that is locked from the inside. After this contentious meeting with Forrest, Morris continues to inundate himself in alcohol at a nearby bar. He is subsequently joined by Forrest’s attractive secretary (Constance Dowling), and eventually shares his murder mystery idea with her. Later that evening, Forrest is found stabbed to death in his office with the doors locked from the inside, just as Morris described in his story idea. Although he didn’t commit the murder, Morris is the obvious suspect, and is hauled in by the police and interrogated. The rest of the movie plays out like a classic whodunit, with Morris eluding the police while trying to determine who committed the crime. Stylistically, the movie feels very much like a classic radio mystery show. Morris’ frequent voiceovers propel the story in a similar manner to radio narrative, where much of the action needed to be spelled out for listeners in the absence of visuals, and indeed, the story itself has much in common with mysteries broadcast on shows like Suspense or I Love a Mystery. The cast turns in an admirable, if largely generic, performance. The chemistry between Morris and Dowling never manages to rise above a moderate simmer, while Geray’s heavy Eastern European accent often makes it difficult to understand some of his more intricate dialog. The film’s biggest payoff is the ultimate revelation of how the locked-door murder was committed. Blind Spot is a serviceable low-budget whodunit, in which the story, and not the cast, is its greatest strength. We give Blind Spot 2.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Released January 19, 1949: CRISS CROSS, starring Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, and Dan Duryea. Directed by Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Killers, The File on Thelma Jordan). The story pivots around a Los Angeles armored car heist orchestrated by Burt Lancaster and Dan Duryea. Lancaster works for the armored car company and is the vital “inside man” necessary to pull off the job, while Duryea is the boss of a small criminal outfit who can provide the manpower and resources needed to implement the caper. But to understand how the robbery plan originated, we are taken back in time to discover that the real story is about Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo. Several years back, Lancaster was briefly married to De Carlo, but after they divorced, Lancaster left Los Angeles and roamed about the country. Upon his return, he eventually met up with De Carlo again and their passion reignited. But Lancaster’s friends and family believed De Carlo was bad for him, so they intervened and discouraged her from seeing him. As a result, she married Duryea, leaving Lancaster heartbroken. However, circumstances bring the three of them together, and Lancaster pitches the idea of the armored car robbery to Duryea as a way to grab enough money to secretly run off with De Carlo, who is unhappy and eager to escape her marriage to Duryea. This is a well-made movie with an excellent cast, but after it hooks you in with an exciting opening, the pace slows down considerably and doesn’t pick up again until the story reaches its fateful climax. This pacing technique can be found in several other classic noir films, such as Kiss the Blood Off My Hands and Born to Kill, both of which follow a similar template. The problem in Criss Cross is that the story gets a little muddled along the way and loses momentum, but thankfully, it’s the powerful performances by Lancaster and De Carlo that really drive this film. De Carlo in particular, is simply outstanding. She’s vibrant, beautiful, and lights up the screen with an intelligent sparkle that all but outshines her legendary costars. In a sequence that’s over a minute long, no words are spoken as the camera follows De Carlo’s face while she dances in a crowded night club. Lancaster watches from a distance, mesmerized, and so are we. (Incidentally, her dance partner is an uncredited Tony Curtis.) In her scenes with Lancaster, she conveys both inner toughness and warm sensitivity, and it’s easy to see why Lancaster is hopelessly in love with her. Although his role is disappointingly small, Dan Duryea turns in another deliciously sleazy performance as only he can. Complementing the film’s stars are the minor supporting players, who contribute a wealth of personality to this film. Duryea’s henchmen (John Doucette, Marc Krah, James O’Rear, and John Skins Miller) breathe life into what easily could have been another routine crew of hoodlums. Joan Miller, who has a tiny part as the bar’s resident alcoholic (the character is billed as “The Lush” in the credits) is simply outstanding. It’s a small, non-essential part, but the movie wouldn’t have been the same without her. Other familiar faces among the cast include the ever-present Percy Helton and Alan Napier. Criss Cross features excellent performances by some of our favorite film noir actors, but the story is mired by slow pacing, and is ultimately quite predictable and not that special. The primary reasons to watch this film are De Carlo’s superb performance, the talented supporting cast, and the many glimpses of old Los Angeles. We give Criss Cross 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Released January 14, 1949: THE ACCUSED, starring Loretta Young, Robert Cummings, and Wendell Corey. Directed by William Dieterle (Rope of Sand, Dark City, The Turning Point). Loretta Young is a bookish university professor who meets with one of her less studious pupils (Douglas Dick) after school to discuss his academic future. Dick offers to drive her home, but instead, takes her to a secluded cliff high above the ocean and tries to force himself on her. In the struggle, Young clubs Dick over the head with a heavy object and kills him. Distraught, she arranges the scene to make it look like Dick slipped off the cliff, hit his head on the rocks below, and drowned, and then makes her way home on foot. The next day, Dick’s family guardian (Robert Cummings) shows up on Young’s doorstep, and not realizing Dick has been killed, wants to discuss Dick’s academic status. Cummings is immediately attracted to Young and pretty soon all he’s interested in is spending as much time as possible with her. Meanwhile, much to Young’s relief, Dick’s death is ruled accidental, however, police detective Wendell Corey is convinced foul play was involved, and continues to doggedly pursue the case. This film has some intriguing moments, but unfortunately, lacks any real suspense. Even though Corey’s net draws tighter and tighter around Young, the audience knows all along she has a justifiable explanation for her actions. Not only that, she has Cummings in her corner, who happens to be an adept attorney, and even though he himself comes to suspect Young of murder, falls completely head over heels for her and will do anything to protect her. The film’s most engaging scenes are those in which Corey analyzes physical evidence or questions Young, but the remainder of the film is primarily devoted to the growing feelings of love between Cummings and Young, which is a rather ho-hum affair. Young’s performance alternates between self-assured professor and helpless damsel in distress on the verge of a fainting spell – an antiquated female stereotype that makes this film feel rather outdated, even by classic film standards. On the other hand, Wendell Corey puts in a charmingly understated performance as an astute detective with a heart. The complete opposite of the stereotypical hard-boiled brute, he is instantly likable and a joy to watch. The Accused is not a bad film, it’s just not a particularly interesting one. The lack of meaningful suspense, slow pacing, and archaic portrayal of women don’t leave much for viewers to savor. We give The Accused 2 out of 5 fedoras.
Premiered January 12, 1943: SHADOW OF A DOUBT, starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, and Macdonald Carey. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (Rebecca, Spellbound, Rear Window). Shadow of a Doubt is reportedly Hitchcock’s personal favorite of all his films. While it doesn’t have the glittering cachet of his other films from the period, such as Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Lifeboat (1944), and Spellbound (1945), it is nonetheless a significant entry in the noir canon and a great film in its own right. The film opens with Joseph Cotten on the run from authorities somewhere on the East Coast. We don’t know exactly why the authorities want him, but the enormous wad of big bills he carries suggests he committed a robbery… or perhaps worse. After eluding the police, Cotten decides to leave the East Coast and come to California to stay with his older sister (Patricia Collinge). Collinge’s teenage daughter (Theresa Wright) is especially fond of her uncle and is overjoyed. Collinge and her husband (Henry Travers) live an idyllic life with three delightful children, a charming home, friends, and plenty of community activities. When Cotten arrives, he quickly insinuates himself into the quaint small-town lifestyle enjoyed by the family. However, it doesn’t take long for his past to catch up with him in the form of two agents (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford) who tracked him across the country. The agents still need to gather more evidence before they can be absolutely certain Cotten is the right suspect, so they don’t want to approach him directly and risk scaring him off again. Instead, they approach Wright and ask her to act on their behalf, but when she learns they suspect Cotten of several brutal murders, she refuses to believe it and won’t cooperate. But the well has been poisoned and Wright becomes increasingly suspicious and fearful of Cotten as small bits of incriminating information come to her attention. Hitchcock’s expert pacing ensures the tension builds very slowly until the suspense reaches a boiling point and Wright finds herself in a perpetual state of danger. Thematically, Shadow of a Doubt is similar to several other Hitchcock films, in particular, Suspicion, where the story starts out harmlessly enough, with a fair amount of humor thrown in, but gradually transforms into a dark tale of terror. In Shadow of a Doubt, Travers and his best friend (Hume Cronyn) frequently discuss methods of killing one another without leaving any evidence. Initially, their lighthearted banter is quite amusing, but as Wright begins to realize the truth about Cotten, their conversations become increasingly disturbing to her and to the audience. What really makes Shadow of a Doubt so unsettling is that it strikes directly at the heart of idealized American life in the 1930s and early 40s. Shaken by the horrors of war and the trauma of soldiers returning home, a growing sense of unease and uncertainty about the future pervaded American society. Film noir reflected this anxiety and brought it to the surface by eschewing conventional Hollywood entertainment in favor of gritty films about the dark side of human nature. In Shadow of a Doubt we are treated to a clear vision of this emerging noir landscape when Cotten delivers a pointed speech to Wright:
“There’s so much you don’t know. So much. What do you know, really? You’re just an ordinary little girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you rip the fronts off houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell.”
Noir films would offer penetrating glimpses into that hell for the next two decades and beyond, and Shadow of a Doubt is one great example. Cotten and Wright are superb in their roles, and they are supported by a first-rate cast of actors, an intelligent script, and a legendary director at the top of his game. We give Shadow of a Doubt 5 out of 5 fedoras.
Premiered January 10, 1948: I LOVE TROUBLE, starring Franchot Tone, Janet Blair, and Janis Carter. Directed by S. Sylvan Simon (Whistling in the Dark, Son of Lassie, The Fuller Brush Man). Franchot Tone is a private detective hired by Tom Powers to uncover the truth about Powers’ wife’s (Lynn Merrick) questionable past. Initial clues take Tone from Los Angeles to Merrick’s home town of Portland, where he discovers she worked for a shady club owner (Steven Geray) before abruptly moving to Los Angeles four years prior to marrying Powers. Her life during those four years is shrouded in mystery, and Tone spends most of the story trying to shed light on her activities during that time. He encounters an assortment of characters in his investigation, most of whom are easily manipulated into revealing information with a simple cash bribe. Of course, there’s a contingent of shady toughs who make it very clear they don’t appreciate Tone nosing around, and a woman (Janet Blair) who claims to be Merrick’s sister and tries to befriend Tone, but her motivations are highly suspect. I Love Trouble is an enjoyable, if largely unspectacular, detective mystery. The plot has enough twists and turns to keep the story interesting, but after Tone starts bouncing repeatedly between all the supporting characters, it does begin to feel a little contrived, as if the story were stretched out to fill time, which can make it a little difficult to follow in places. Fortunately, the dialog is peppered with entertaining one-liners and comebacks to keep the viewer engaged for the duration. However, one aspect of the film that is so bad it must be mentioned, is the music. With the exception of a handful of scenes where it successfully punctuates the action, the music is completely incongruous to the mood of nearly every scene, to the point of distraction, and does nothing to enhance the story. The film would’ve been better off without any music at all. I Love Trouble maintains a generally lighthearted feel and is not as dark as many other noirs, which is due in part to Tone’s jaunty performance. Franchot Tone was a popular actor in the 1930s and 40s who appeared in many films, but he doesn’t quite hit the mark in the role of private eye. His performance is acceptable, but he comes across a little too sophisticated and lacking in cynicism to pull off a convincing classic noir gumshoe. I Love Trouble has its share of problems and doesn’t venture that deep into noir territory, but it does offer a competent and compelling detective story that should appeal to most viewers. We give I Love Trouble 2.5 out of 5 fedoras.
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, Broderick 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.