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Human Desire

Thoughts on the film by Fritz Lang

The characters, like trains in perpetual motion, are on a collision course, unable to change track. The lines of the iron girders that form this interconnected network of railroads and tramlines, become like the bars of a prison cell, encircling and ensnaring these characters from the outset.

Pertinent visual metaphors abound in Fritz Lang's late melodrama, which adapts the 1890 novel "La Bête humaine" by Émile Zola, and in the process translates it into the language of the American film noir.

Better writers than me have touched upon this emphasis on trains and train tracks, which dominates the iconography of Lang's film to such an extent that it seems pathological, rather than aesthetical. These are characters moving headlong in the same direction, their guilt, complicity and desperation propelling them on along this journey to a (final) destination that can only end in bloodshed or desolation. Criminality is the train that these characters board and the question throughout is whether any of them will have the foresight or the resilience to get off before it's too late.

Human Desire [Fritz Lang, 1954]:

I once outlined an essay in which I argued the history of cinema was trains and bridges; that the birth of cinema was defined by the two. The train in particular is an appropriate metaphor for narrative cinema; something that progresses in a straight-line from point A to point B. This connection is something that Alain Robbe-Grillet recognized in his masterful post-modern meta-film, Trans-Europ-Express (1966).

A characteristic film noir motif: the silhouette of the venetian blinds becoming an onscreen signifier of the unlawful; the bars of a prison cell, or the criminal act itself. But is the character here outside the law or imprisoned by their own emotions, or the world they inhabit?

While the subtext here is intelligent and lends the work a certain depth, Human Desire (1954) is nonetheless one of the weakest of Lang's films for me. As a melodrama I found it inert and unconvincing. Glenn Ford is too old to play the protagonist, who should've been a guy in his early twenties, naive and quick to please.

In films like Blue Velvet (1986) and Lost Highway (1997), David Lynch proved that these dangerous love triangles work best when the guy in the middle of it all is some dumb young sap blinded by his lust for an older woman. Ford was almost forty here and looks older. That his character spends many of his earlier scenes flirting with a supposedly eighteen and interested Kathleen Case, makes his sudden seduction by fading goodtime girl Gloria Grahame all the more unlikely.

However, what's really missing from Human Desire is Lang's incredible formalism. While it's intelligently made and has some attractive imagery, it feels bland and safe in comparison to Lang's greatest films, which were often loaded with expressionist lighting, dreamlike sequences and dynamic shot compositions. Compare the film in question to more masterful works, such as Spies (1928), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Secret Beyond the Door (1948), The Big Heat (1953) and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) to name a few, and we see not only a weaker emphasis on cinematic style, but a much less rich and well-developed psychological or self-reflexive element to how the story is constructed and unfolds.

While not a terrible film, Human Desire feels like a work that could've been directed by any anonymous studio practitioner. It feels somewhat generic, lacking the mesmeric, somnambulistic quality of Lang's great expressionist psychodramas, and feeling especially weak in comparison to analogous crime/noir classics like In a Lonely Place (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) or Touch of Evil (1958).


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