Cast & Crew
Jeff Warren, a returning Korean war veteran, resumes his job as railroad engineer with longtime friend Alec Simmons. Uncertain of his future, Jeff gratefully accepts Alec's invitation to reoccupy his room at the Simmons home, where he is cheerfully greeted by Alec's wife Vera and their daughter and Jeff's childhood friend Ellen. At the railroad yard, Alec introduces Jeff to Carl Buckley, the assistant yard master. A few days later Carl informs his wife Vicki that due to a fit of temper with his boss, he was fired. Vicki is supportive and assures Carl they can move or she can return to work. Carl refuses to consider either possibility, then pleads with Vicki to contact the powerful John Owens, her mother's former boss, to use his influence with the railroad line to have Carl reinstated. Vicki resists the suggestion, but under Carl's continued pressure, at last agrees. The following day Carl and Vicki take the train to the next town, where Vicki insists that she meet Owens alone. Vicki returns late and tells Carl that Owens has gotten him rehired, but Carl grows suspicious of her long visit and questions her harshly. When Vicki protests, Carl beats her, then forces her to write an intimate letter to Owens, asking to meet him the next day on the train. The following day, Carl and Vicki board Owens' train, as does Jeff. Once the train is underway, Carl drags Vicki to Owens' compartment, then knifes the older man to death. Afterward, Carl takes Vicki's letter from Owens' body and his wallet to make the attack appear to be motivated by robbery. As they are about to leave Owens' compartment, Carl notices Jeff smoking between rail cars and sends Vicki to distract him. Vicki lures Jeff to another compartment, where he tries to kiss her, before she flees back to Carl. Upon arriving at the station, Jeff is dismayed to run into Carl, who formally introduces him to his wife. During testimony at the inquest of Owens' murder, Jeff avoids identifying Vicki as the passenger he witnessed near Owens' compartment. Later, Jeff runs into a morose Vicki and drunken Carl at a bar and helps Vicki get her husband home. Vicki thanks Jeff for his testimony and explains that she went to Owens' compartment to ask him for help with Carl's job, but found him dead. Vicki then confides that Carl abuses her and shows him several welts on her shoulders. The next day Vicki and Carl quarrel over Owens' murder, and Carl refuses to return Vicki's letter. Several days later, Vicki calls Jeff and meets with him to bemoan her crumbling marriage. Jeff is sympathetic and the two begin an affair. A few days later Ellen come to the train yard to visit Jeff. She asks Jeff about his dating Vicki but he remains evasive and, hurt, Ellen leaves. On the train, Alec cautions Jeff about seeing a married woman. Several days later in a borrowed apartment, Jeff complains to Vicki about their covert meetings and suggests they go to the police about Carl. Vicki admits that she lied about Owens' murder and reveals the truth, ending with Carl blackmailing her with the letter. Jeff grows angry, declaring that Vicki has now made him an accomplice by confiding in him and asks her if Carl had reason to be jealous of Owens. Vicki describes how she and her mother lived with Owens when Vicki was a teenager and Carl became obsessed over it. Jeff remains dubious, but promises to stay with Vicki. One evening Vicki calls Jeff and upon meeting him, declares that Carl has been fired again and intends to sell the house and leave town. Startled, Jeff nevertheless demands Vicki stay and vows to get the letter from Carl. Vicki fears that Carl will kill them both should he discover their affair and makes a veiled suggestion that Jeff kill him. That night, Jeff finds Carl drunk in a bar and follows him across the yard, intending to murder him. Later he returns to Vicki and confesses he was unable to murder Carl and helped him to the hospital instead. Jeff asks Vicki again about Owens, and she angrily declares that the older man assaulted her when she was sixteen and once Carl learned this, it ruined their marriage. She accuses Jeff of harboring the same jealousies as Carl. Feeling that he has been used, Jeff breaks with Vicki but leaves her the letter, which he found in Carl's pocket. The next day before his regular run, Jeff contemplates Ellen's invitation to a dance as Vicki boards the train. Just as the train departs, Carl drunkenly stumbles into Vicki's compartment and demands to know where she is going. She informs him that she is leaving him and laughs when he pleads with her to stay and offers to destroy the letter. When Carl accuses her of having an affair with Jeff, she agrees, then admits she did allow Owens to seduce her to win Carl's job back. Hysterical, Carl strangles Vicki to death. Oblivious in the engine car, Jeff and Alec mend their friendship.
Victor Hugo Greene
William A. Lyon
Lewis J. Rachmil
The project had originated at Columbia with producer Jerry Wald, who admired the Renoir film and hired writer Maxwell Shane (City Across the River ) to do an adaptation. Onboard for the remake, Lang tossed out Shane's work and brought in Alfred Hayes, who had written Clash by Night (1952) for him at Warners. As negotiations with Lorre (away in Germany making a film) stalled, Lang finished The Big Heat. When that trim policier proved an unexpected hit, Columbia slotted stars Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame into The Human Beast (as the property was called at that time), while studio chief Harry Cohn and producer Wald began to chip away at everything that had attracted them to the story in the first place.
Harry Cohn hated the pessimistic worldview of the Zola novel and the downbeat ending of Renoir's version. After The Big Heat scribe Sidney Boehm had a whack at the material and Alfred Hayes contributed another draft, the film's protagonist had become a war hero who hated violence (or, in Lang's words, "like Li'l Abner coming back from Korea hundred per cent red-blooded American with very natural sex feelings, if such a thing exists."). Even with the psycho-sexual leanings of its tortured dramatis personae watered down to two cents plain, The Human Beast was deemed too hot a property by the executives of the Santa Fe Railroad, whom Jerry Wald had approached for use of their yards as a location.
The preproduction team traveled to Canada, scouring snowy Alberta for likely locations, until they were called back to California after a minor executive at Columbia was found to own stock in a small railway. These negotiations pushed the start of principal photography to December of 1953, forcing Lang and his cast (which added Broderick Crawford to the mix as the third wheel in what was now a standard issue love triangle) and crew (including cinematographer Burnett Guffey, whose previous assignment was lensing From Here to Eternity  in Hawaii) to shoot during an atypically frigid California winter. Unable to use his chosen actor or present Zola's story in his own way, Lang rode out the assignment, bringing his usual blend of professional tyranny to bear. As shooting dragged on for seven weeks into early 1954, tempers grew short. When Lang lashed out at leading lady Gloria Grahame, costar Broderick Crawford lifted Lang off the floor by his lapels, bringing business to a screeching halt until emotions cooled.
Retitled Human Desire (to which Lang quipped acidly "Is there any other kind?") for its theatrical run in the summer of 1954, the film did not repeat the success of The Big Heat, either financially or critically. In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther opined the loss of the "haunting terror" and "morbid fascination" of Renoir and slammed the "flat, lethargic fashion" of Lang's direction. Having satisfied his two-picture contract with Columbia (who opted not to renew it), Lang decamped to MGM, where he had directed Fury in 1936 in an atmosphere of hostility and acrimony. Having since jettisoned problematic studio head Louis B. Mayer and with an attitude of reconciliation prompted by the success of The Big Heat, Metro offered Lang the period piece Moonfleet (1955). The Technicolor production was to be Lang's first in CinemaScope and his most lavish, a bona fide "A" picture. Despite its attention-getting particulars (color, widescreen and Stewart Granger in the lead), the film failed to find favor in America and Lang soldiered on to the next assignment.
While the ensuing half century hasn't entirely rescued Human Desire from ignominy, the occasional critic has stepped forward with a bold reappraisal even given the superiority of the Jean Renoir version. Writing in The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris suggested: "What we remember in Renoir are the faces of Gabin, Simon and Ledoux. What we remember in Lang are the geometrical patterns of trains, tracks and fateful camera angles. If Renoir is humanism, Lang is determinism. If Renoir is concerned with plight of his characters, Lang is obsessed with the structure of the trap."
Producer: Lewis J. Rachmil
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Alfred Hayes, based on the novel "La Bete Humaine" by Emile Zola
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Film Editing: Aaron Stell
Cast: Glenn Ford (Jeff Warren), Gloria Grahame (Vicki Buckley), Broderick Crawford (Carl Buckley), Edgar Buchanan (Alec Simmons), Kathleen Case (Ellen Simmons), Peggy Maley (Jean), .
by Richard Harland Smith
The Cinema of Fritz Lang by Paul M. Jensen
Fritz Lang in America by Peter Bogdanovich
Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan
The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin
Fritz Lang's HUMAN DESIRE and Other Lesser Known Gems in Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Vol. 2 on DVD
The collection is a showcase for top noir talent. Forties stars like Glenn Ford, Richard Conte and Fred MacMurray are here, along with new faces Aldo Ray, Vince Edwards and Brian Keith. The tough/tender women in jeopardy include Anne Bancroft and Gloria Grahame; we also witness the film debut of star Kim Novak.
Fritz Lang studies the relationship of character to fate in 1954's Human Desire, a remake of Jean Renoir's French classic La bête humain, from a novel by Émile Zola. The original film is a prime exponent of Poetic Realism, a French school of films about working-class people betrayed by their own passions. Transposed to the wholesome milieu of Middle America, the tale still convinces thanks to near-perfect casting. Fresh from fighting in Korea, railroad engineer Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) falls in love with Vicki (Gloria Grahame), the abused wife of the older, unstable stationmaster Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford). Carl pressures Vicki to ask an executive -- who molested her as a younger woman -- for his job back, and then murders the man in a fit of rage. Jeff withholds his suspicions about the killing, while Carl threatens Vicki with a compromising letter. Committed to Vicki, Jeff follows Carl to the freight yard, to commit a murder of his own.
Fritz Lang would not have been allowed to film the sordid details of Renoir's story at any American studio. The Production Code demanded the violence be toned down and all transgressors be punished, and the studio insisted that Glenn Ford's play a virtuous working man free of mental illness. No American railroad would cooperate with a movie about murders occurring on their trains. With some of the filming moved to Canada, Lang had to do without Rita Hayworth, his first choice to play Vicki, because a child custody case prevented her from leaving the country. Instead of three flawed characters set on a collision course, Human Desire gives us a psychotic villain, his compromised wife, and a relatively pure hero.
Fritz Lang deftly suggests a few of the original's seamier extremes while stressing his own brand of environmental determinism. Precise montages of trains at work mirror similar fishing industry sequences in his earlier Clash by Night, and POV shots of crisscrossing rails imply that our fate depends on our choices. Lang's masterful direction places his characters in darkened sleeping cabins and forces the lovers to meet in rail yard shacks. But the stylized 40s ambience of eternal night and shadow is gone.
Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame are reunited from the previous year's The Big Heat, where they didn't even share a kiss. Gloria Grahame's Vicki is a needy, battered woman who does seem to love Jeff. But she's not the "right woman" for him. In a nod to healthy values, Alfred Hayes' screenplay holds the virginal Ellen (Kathleen Case) in reserve, waiting patiently for Jeff to come to his senses. Once again, the Production Code's insistence on wholesome values constrains film noir's erotic drive.
As with all the films in this Classics II collection, Human Desire is a picture perfect B&W transfer, enhanced for widescreen. Usually shown full-frame on cable broadcasts, the film gains significantly when cropped to its proper widescreen aspect ratio -- the drama is much more focused.
1954's Pushover reminds us strongly of parts of Double Indemnity combined with Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. Once again playing a man seduced into murder for money and a woman, Fred MacMurray reprises his part from the Billy Wilder masterpiece, with the difference that he's now ten years worse for wear and less cocky about himself. Richard Quine's direction disguises the fact that most of the movie plays out in the same two or three sets.Pushover is the debut picture of Kim Novak, who emerges fully developed as a passive beauty guaranteed to inspire extreme male misbehavior.
On the track of bank robber Wheeler and $200,000 in stolen loot, detective Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) picks up Wheeler's girlfriend, Lona McLane (Kim Novak) in the line of duty. He and his partner Rick McAllister (Phil Carey) keep a 24-hour watch on the McLane apartment. Lona realizes that Paul's a cop and suggests that they do away with Wheeler and run away together with the money. Paul figures a way to accomplish this without his superiors finding out. Meanwhile, Rick is attracted to the woman in the next window over from Lona's apartment, nurse Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone), but resists getting involved with her while on the job. When the stakeout seems to go wrong, Lt. Eckstrom (E. G. Marshall) takes a more active role in the case, complicating Paul's shaky inside-man scheme.
Pushover's makers flesh out their derivative storyline with plenty of clever touches. The male surveillance of the females in their apartments is voyeurism plain and simple, with Lona aware of her observers in a way that reminds us of peepshows in movies like Hardcore and Paris, Texas. Lona's scripted behavior is somewhat inconsistent. She instigates the murder idea in much the same manner as does Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, but from then on seems mostly a passive puppet. She follows Paul's explicit instructions to do things like draw Paul's partners away from the crime scene, etc. This "obedience factor" mirrors Kim Novak's sexual compliance in her later classic Vertigo.
Noir critics have commented about partner Rick's use of binoculars to "window shop" for the right girl. Another detective clearly enjoys watching the women disrobe, but Rick keeps things on a professional level. He doesn't tell Ann Stewart what he's doing, even after she responds positively to his he-man treatment of a masher (Paul Picerni).Pushover presents a vision of relationships equally as perverse as those of Human Desire, yet no situations arise that would drop a flag before the Production Code's censors. MacMurray's Paul Sheridan chases the twin dream of money and romance, and is almost clever enough to succeed. The ending reaches for romantic resonance when Paul states that, "Maybe we didn't really need the money." But as venality is what motivates Wheeler, Lona and Paul, we must conclude that the characters are once again fooling themselves.
Trim it of its final two minutes, and The Brothers Rico would be a prophetic masterpiece of modern paranoia to match Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. With barely more resources than the average TV show, director Paul Wendkos turns French scribe Georges Simenon's thriller into a vision of the underworld as an inhuman, pervasive social monster. Critics studying fifties' anxieties will find a full statement here: our complacent surface world is completely unaware of an underlying Mabuse-like "empire of crime" that respects no human values. Forties noir icon Richard Conte is perfect as a cog from the old Mafia who believes that the mob will allow him a free and legitimate lifestyle. Not until Francis Coppola's glamorized Godfather films did American movies present the "corporate" transformation of organized crime in such powerful terms.
Ex- mob accountant Eddie Rico (Conte) runs a successful laundry business and with his younger wife Alice (Dianne Foster) hopes to adopt a child. But a call from crime chieftain Sid Kubik (Larry Gates) insists that Eddie locate his younger brothers Johnny and Gino (James Darren & Paul Picerni). The two men have disappeared after performing a mob slaying, and Kubik fears that they might be cooperating with federal investigators. Realizing that his brother's lives are in danger, Eddie rushes to find them. Gino is convinced that he's already a marked man, but Eddie counsels him to do as Kubik says. Eddie must go to New York to get a lead on his youngest brother Johnny. He stops in briefly with his mother (Argentina Brunetti), who doubts that Kubik has her boys' best interests at heart. As Eddie proceeds to the small town in Arizona where Johnny and his new wife Norah (Kathryn Grant) are hiding out, he realizes that he's bumping into too many "friendly" old-time mob associates. Should he be telling Johnny to return to the fold, or to flee for his life?
The Rico brothers are not innocent men, but they became part of the old mob through loyal family ties. Their mother once "stopped a bullet" meant for Sid Kubik, and the older man repeatedly asserts that he considers the Rico boys to be his own. But the "new" mob does not value human relationships. Absolute loyalty is required of members, but every underling is an expendable pawn. Personal freedom is impossible because the mob keeps close tabs on its personnel. Eddie's progress is monitored at every step. He's given a lift by New Yorker Vic (Richard Bakalyan), a wiseguy who pretends he's just being friendly. The Phoenix airport is watched by Charlie Gonzales (Rudy Bond), who glad-hands Eddie with an invitation to a roadhouse casino. When Eddie finally discovers that he's been played as a sucker, it's far too late. "Nothing personal", says Mike Lamotta, a thug who holds Eddie prisoner in a hotel room.
The Brothers Rico seems more relevant now than it did in 1957, provided we ignore its absurd, cheerful epilogue. The mob operates more or less like a modern corporation, independent from meaningful government oversight. Making money is its only goal. A strict internal hierarchy is imposed at all times. Members can't talk about "company business" and will invite suspicion if they don't demonstrate full compliance with company policies. The only difference is that mob employees can't quit. The mob is clearly "too big to fail".
The Brothers Rico is very cleanly designed by art director Robert Boyle. This is minimalism at its best. Johnny's farm hideout is seen only from one establishing wide shot. When the mob's cars arrive quietly on the roadway outside, the angle contains all we need to know. Until its conclusion, this very chilling film shows no overt violence: the implied threats are enough to hold it together.
Jacques Tourneur (Berlin Express, Out of the Past) returns to noir turf with 1957's Nightfall, a faithful-in-spirit adaptation of the suspenseful novel by David Goodis. Tourneur once again infuses a story of murderous double-crosses with intelligence and poetic effects.
Crooks John and Red (Brian Keith & Rudy Bond) trace commercial artist James Vanning (Aldo Ray) to his Hollywood apartment. Vanning at first thinks that model Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft) has set him up but then relies on her to help him survive his ordeal. The previous Fall in Wyoming, John and Red confronted the vacationing Vanning and murdered his doctor friend. A mix-up with bags left Vanning in possession of the loot, which he buried in the snow. Vanning and Marie must now flee north to recover the money, pursued by the thieves and by Ben Fraser (James Gregory), an insurance investigator convinced that they're all criminals.
Nightfall begins with a romantic title tune sung over Hollywood traffic at sundown, but soon sees its hero James Vanning beaten in a remote oil field. Marie Gregory barely escapes the onerous Red and John at an open-air fashion show on Wilshire Boulevard. David Goodis' book was a feverish first-person account of growing paranoia, but Tourneur and writer Stirling Silliphant back away from Vanning's personal viewpoint without sacrificing tension. As in Out of the Past the hero is at a loss in the dark alleys of the urban setting, but the snowbound Wyoming landscape changes the rules, giving Vanning a fighting chance. Like most films by Jacques Tourneur, Nightfall has its own rhythms and special character graces. Gravel voiced Aldo Ray is excellent as the haunted Vanning, a tough guy who is also believably gentle. Brian Keith must work hard to impress as a threat to the more imposing-looking Aldo Ray. Anne Bancroft is encouraged to give Marie an extra dimension as well; for once the idea of a woman dropping everything to follow a strange man into danger seems wholly credible. Nightfall is the rare 50s American noir thriller that captures the ambience of its hardboiled pulp source.
The surprise hit of last year's Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I was Murder by Contract, an effective hit-man tale starring Vince Edwards. Director Irving Lerner's immediate 1959 follow-up City of Fear uses the same producer, art director and cameraman (Lucien Ballard of The Wild Bunch). With a budget that seems even smaller than before, Lerner found other tech talent at the beginning of impressive careers: editor Robert Lawrence (Spartacus, El Cid) and composer Jerry Goldsmith.
City of Fear's pared-down story is more suited to a TV show -- The Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode The Dividing Wall (1963) used the exact same idea. The script is a collaboration by actor-writer Steven Ritch and Robert Dillon (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes). Escapee Vince Ryker (Edwards) thinks he's stolen a sealed container of heroin for use in medical experiments on fellow prisoners. The unshielded canister, the size of a coffee thermos, actually holds deadly radioactive isotope Cobalt-60. Vince has no idea that his treasure is slowly killing him. Police Chief Jensen, Lt. Richards and Dr. Wallace (Lyle Talbot, John Archer & screenwriter Steven Ritch) are afraid to start a panic by going public, and instead wait for Ryker to trip himself up. Unable to cash in his find, Ryker comes down with flu-like symptoms that won't go away.
City of Fear looks assembled from bits and pieces. While Ryker tangles with unreliable dope contacts, the three authority figures policemen fret and worry. John Archer seemingly repeats his role from ten years back in White Heat. Despite the movie's overall competence we keep wondering why Ryker isn't concerned that his canister can't be opened. Doesn't any drug runner first confirm what he's carrying? City of Fear's camera roams atypical Los Angeles locations like the Melrose district and Sunset Blvd, but its finale appears to have been shot on a studio lot to save money, as had a major scene in Murder by Contract. Without an action conclusion, it's left to Vince Edwards' acting to lend some punch to the downbeat ending. City of Fear shows talented filmmakers making do with a minimum of filmic resources. Jerry Goldsmith's music score, his second theatrical effort, gives the picture a major boost.
Sony's DVD collection Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II contains nigh-perfect enhanced widescreen transfers of these rewarding late-period noir thrillers. Each film comes on its own disc and includes an original theatrical trailer. The other extras are limited to short interviews with Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and Emily Mortimer. Scorsese offers a few useful comments on The Brothers Rico but the other two spokespeople mostly communicate their personal reactions to the movies. We know that the changing market for DVDs has caused most companies to cut back drastically on their extras, but we still miss the expert commentaries on the first set of Columbia Noirs. Our interest increases with each new release of arcane and eccentric Noir titles.
For more information about Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II, visit Sony. To order Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Fritz Lang's HUMAN DESIRE and Other Lesser Known Gems in Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Vol. 2 on DVD
The working title of this film was The Human Beast. A September 1950 Hollywood Reporter news item reveals that producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna originally purchased the rights to Émile Zola's novel La bête humaine (The Human Beast) for an estimated price of $5,000 from Raymond Hakim, who had produced a film version of the story in France in 1938, directed by Jean Renoir and starring Jean Gabin. An item in Louella Parsons' February 9, 1952 column in Los Angeles Examiner reveals that Wald was considering casting Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas, the three stars of Fritz Lang's Clash by Night. The same item also notes Lang's involvement with the Wald production. In December 1952, Daily Variety announced that Columbia now owned the property and production was going ahead under Lewis J. Rachmil, with Maxwell Shane serving as writer-director. Shane's contribution to the finished film, if any, has not been determined.
According to a September 1953 Los Angeles Times news item, Rita Hayworth was to have starred in the film, but withdrew from the project after her marriage to singer Dick Haymes. The same item and a September 1953 Hollywood Reporter item indicate that Olivia de Havilland was to replace Hayworth. Hollywood Reporter notes that upon de Havilland's withdrawal, Columbia contacted independent producer David O. Selznick for a possible loanout of Jennifer Jones. According to September 1953 Hollywood Reporter news items, Human Desire was to be Columbia's first CinemaScope release and was to be shot in Canada. The film was not shot in CinemaScope, however. Although Aaron Stell is listed onscreen as the picture's editor, William A. Lyon is credited by the Hollywood Reporter review and a Columbia billing sheet. In 1964, an Argentine production was filmed, entitled La bestia humano.
Released in United States 1999
Released in United States Summer August 1954
Shown at The Public Theater (Renoir Retrospective) in New York City July 29 & 31, 1990.
Remake of Jean Renoir's "La Bete Humaine" also adapted from the Emile Zola novel.
Re-release in London April 26, 1991.
Released in United States 1999 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Columbia 75" November 19 - January 13, 1999.)
Released in United States Summer August 1954