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Year: 1954

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Gloria Grahame, Glenn Ford, Broderick Crawford

Wanting to cash in on the success of Lang’s The Big Heat which had been released the previous year, Columbia had the great director re-team Grahame and Ford in another film noir called Human Desire. Personally speaking, I think Renoir’s La Bete Humaine w/ Jean Gabin is a better movie from the same book but it doesn’t have Grahame now does it? In this noir, GG plays her most twisted, depraved, and amoral femme fatale. Vicki Buckley is the wife of Carl (Broderick Crawford) and they have a brutal marriage. Carl is abusive and he lacks any urbanities whatsoever. As we find out from their arguments, it appears that Grahame’s character only married Carl because he had a good job @ the railroad and she had no other outs. It’s a decision she’s come to regret since.

Glenn Ford plays our protagonist in the film, Jeff Warren. Mr. Warren is a Korean War veteran who has come back to his sleepy hometown to re-claim his job as a railroad engineer. Jeff encounters Vicki a couple of times in town and her hotness cannot be denied. He asks around about who she is and he is intrigued by the hushed tones and curt responses he gets from his friends.

Crawford’s character screws up @ work by offending a customer and his blustery behavior costs him his job. Desperate and feeling emasculated, Carl pleads with his wife to go see wealthy industrialist Mr. Owens — played by Grandon Rhodes — to make his case and save his position. Mr. Buckley has seemingly bought the story his wife gave him re: how she knows Owens so well. Vicki claims that he is an old family friend that was very fond of her as a child. Is her husband actually asking his wife to bang this guy? Carl dances around any clarification but the implication is clear: do whatever it takes. The whole time Vicki is w/ Owens her spouse is seething in anger and jealousy. Upon her return, she informs him that Owens called in a marker and got him reinstated. His angry interrogation into what happened and what took so long quickly escalates into an ugly fight that gets physical.

Vicki begins seeing her new sugar daddy on the side and a suspicious Carl catches them on a train together. Crazed and out of control, Mr. Buckley kills the industrialist right in front of his wife. Surprisingly, Mrs. Buckley is quick to recover and help her husband figure a way out of their mess. Jeff is off-duty and happens to be on the same train bound for Chicago as the Buckleys. Looking to dispose of the body, Carl sees that Ford’s engineer is the only person in the car that would be able to see him pull the murdered industrialist through the door and out of sight. He orders Vicki to go flirt with him as a distraction. Jeff and Grahame’s less-than-reputable housewife hit it off quickly even resulting in a passionate kiss.

When the body is found it comes out in the police investigation that the Buckleys were in the train car adjacent to the murder victim. Jeff is called as a witness and reluctantly lies under oath to protect Vicki. He clearly is whipped. They begin a torrid affair and Jeff grows angrier as his lover tells stories and provides evidence of Carl’s mistreatment. Talk snowballs into discussion of murder. The film’s protagonist is so high off Vicki’s fumes that he contemplates ridding her of the brutish Carl. After all, he killed men in Korea. Why would this be harder?

I won’t reveal anything more about how Human Desire plays out. What’s left to be said are more thoughts on what makes Vicki tick. Yes, she’s being abused by her husband. But in their scenes together, Mrs. Buckley is no frightened mouse. She’s right in her spouse’s face taunting him and challenging his manhood. The psychology of her character is difficult to grasp. At times she is even what you’d call passive agressive, pushing all the right buttons that will set off the volatile Carl. By the end of the picture, the viewer has to believe that Grahame’s sinister femme fatale is incapable of loving anyone.

Year: 1956

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Vincent Price

All the right names are attached to While the City Sleeps. As the opening credits unfolded I noticed pleasant surprise after pleasant surprise. This film features a star studded cast including (in no particular order) Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders, John Drew Barrymore, Vincent Price, Rhonda Fleming, and Howard Duff, just to name a few. This cast portray characters in a movie that shines a light on some unattractive aspects of human nature.

After the death of a rich entrepreneur named Amos Kyne, his top employees struggle for control in this Fritz Lang film filled with twists, and turns. Their goal is to impress Mr. Kyne’s son, played by Vincent Price. Meanwhile, a brutal new serial killer is plaguing the city and they all want to dig up a scoop to secure some stature within the media empire.

This film not only takes a haunting look at the mind of a serial killer but also portrays the cut throat nature of office politics, especially amongst newsmen.

The real success of this film is the twists and turns and the backstabbing amongst all involved in Kyne’s media empire including the women involved with those trying to climb the ladder to prestige and success. Fritz Lang doesn’t pull punches as he depicts the lengths people are willing to go to further their career. The following line, spoken by one of the competitors, depicts just how low a man will go to get a little further ahead, “To get the job I’ll stick a knife into anyone I have to.” While the prominent members of Kyne’s media empire figuratively stick knives into one another a disturbed serial killer is literally murdering woman after woman. The cutthroat world of business is more then adequately likened to the most disturbed criminals found in modern society.

At times the story drags a little bit and considering the subject matter it isn’t nearly as suspenseful and gritty as it could be. Watching these very human characters as they claw at the throats of those standing in their way is not only entertaining but results in a little introspection on just how far each and every one of us might go to get ahead.

By Greg Dickson

Year: 1954

Director: Fritz Lang

Starring: Glen Ford, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford

Sometimes I wonder as I watch an old movie how they got past the censors of the day. Human Desire is one of those movies. This is one of the most sexually charged, gritty and explicit films from the 1950s that I have seen in a long time.

The plot follows a young train engineer who has just recently returned from the military. This engineer, played by Glenn Ford, returns to his old job and while catching up with friends finds one of his prior colleagues has done very well for himself financially and is now married to a much younger woman named Vicki Buckley (played by Gloria Grahame). He soon starts to discover that there is something suspicious going on between them and as he starts to uncover more and more he also becomes more and more interested in his old friend’s wife. Soon, the family he rents a room from and lives with, including a young daughter who has matured into a woman while he was away, start to notice his absence night after night as well as many phone calls between him and Vicki Buckley.

All the actors in this film did a fantastic job portraying their parts. Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford especially stand out as the newly married couple. Gloria Grahame who I recently saw in In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart appears to be a real chameleon and a very accomplished actress. Her performance is fantastic. She straddles the line of sympathetic victim and ominous temptress perfectly always leaving the audience somewhat off balance, but completely riveted at the same time.

Her husband, played by Broderick Crawford is also perfect for his part. His character is gruff and intimidating but also jealous and insecure which must have been a difficult blend of emotions to characterize.

This movie was also very interesting in how it gave a fresh take on the femme fatale as well as its exploration of male-female relationships.

Visually speaking this is a very enjoyable movie to watch as it masterfully sets the mood through the cinematography, including the use of light and dark. Certain frames are so dark one can hardly make out anything until a perfectly timed splash of light illuminates the frame and furthers the story.

This is a great character driven story about the darkest of human desires.

By Greg Dickson

Year: 1937

Director: Fritz Lang

Starring: Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney

Times, they have been a-changin’. Somewhat. Back in the 1930s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were folk heroes. They were vicious thugs by trade, responsible for the murder of many civilians and lawmen over the course of their careers as robbers. They were also, as the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde tag line put it, young and in love. I guess everyone’s a sucker for a star-crossed love story, especially when it’s cut short by a hail of bullets. Americans like to side with the underdog; the thirteen colonies originated as the underdog, and something in the American spirit — regardless of the U.S.A.’s place in the world — likes to believe we’re constantly rallying against all odds to fight for what is right. Who knows? Maybe we are. If an underdog carries a pistol and puts lead pills in law-abiding innocents, maybe we fit the bill better than we’d like to acknowledge.

The brilliant Fritz Lang made You Only Live Once not long after emigrating from Germany. Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney are fetching stand-ins for Barrow and Parker. Lang constructs his scenes with fluidity and terse grace, weaving between subtle, almost workmanlike mise-en-scene and moments of expressionist grandeur. Lang’s style abets the self-conscious moral tone of the film in surprising ways. While its plain starkness upholds a sense of black-and-white morality and redemption, jutting, layered shadows — and one notable scene shrouded in fog — drench the story in ambiguous noir overtones. When Fonda’s ex-con, Eddie Taylor, is fired for being late with a truck delivery, we are supposed to be outraged at his boss’s judgmental sadism. When Eddie shoots a priest in cold blood, we’re supposed to empathize because the poor man’s been sitting on death row for four months because on a bum rap. When Sidney’s Jo is spotted buying cigarettes, we’re supposed to lament the cosmic fickleness that these young, handsome people should be cornered so close to freedom. Without detailing the reversals and discreet mechanics of the film’s plot, allow me to simply say that for all intents and purposes, this is a “wrong man” scenario in which the wrong man (and his too-adorable-for-words wife) are persecuted by a callous society.

It’s the typical socially-conscious Hollywood picture, with a one-sided moral alignment against that most nebulous of villains, the Establishment.

To watch the film today and accord its storytelling dexterity the same virtue as its moral commentary would be a grave mistake. Perhaps even for its time, its moral compass was eerily directionless. Consider that three-time felon Taylor is only fired because he took his wife house shopping during working hours. Precipitating the Taylors’ tragedy, it illustrates their disconnect between dream and reality. Having established that Taylor is a pragmatist during his parole hearing, it astonished me that Eddie would flaunt the opportunity he’d been given his first week on the job, given his conviction that the world already scrutinizes him unfairly. After being fired, he seeks the solace of a former criminal partner and lies to his wife when she enquires about him. This criminal associate later perpetrates a massacre and frames Eddie — with Eddie having practically turned over the damning evidence with a pretty pink ribbon. His impatience for freedom and frustration with a damaged justice system lead him to jailbreak, despite the fact that, had he accepted his fate with graceful stoicism, he would have received the news of his pardon without killing a priest. He’s an aggressor; an advocate of his own fault. When we find him torn up by the guilt of Father Dolan’s murder, Jo urges him to shrug it off. Though the film (wrongly) absolves Eddie of personal responsibility for everything except killing the priest, he is anything but a passive victim.

There appears to be a mentality among many narrative artists that if a person lives at the poverty level and encounters enough unpleasant, rich, old men, he is morally unaccountable for murder. I can’t say he “gets away with murder,” since a narrative staple of films where the downtrodden are oppressed by authorities and the wealthy is that the protagonist is often shot, lynched, stabbed, burned, or executed in some other infamous fashion. My distaste for the regurgitation of these themes over the course of 100+ years of cinema — and several hundred years of literature — stems from that fact that the foundational morality of the film is flawed in service to a vogue, vague sociopolitial aim. Fonda had a penchant for playing saints and martyrs, but his Eddie Taylor is at times mercifully closer in behavior to Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West. In this respect — Fonda’s performance — the film achieves a transcendence even Lang’s direction can’t grant. Fonda’s is a naturally “honest” face you want to trust, to admire, to follow. What he does with this role is take his perpetually searching gaze and etch his eyes and his angular limbs with the fervor of a paranoid sewer rat. If he has the capacity for love, his predeliction for shortcuts and willful ignorance surpass it every time, leaving him gazing with those wide, honest eyes through the shadowy bars of a self-constructed cell, counting the eternities of every passing minute.

Eddie may be a martyr, but he’s no saint. The film canonizes him anyway. Rather than a moral complexity, it ends up an inconsistency — or, worse, a contradiction. We’re invited to look past Eddie’s career as a criminal to the sensitive soul brimming with love underneath his taut skin; instead, what lurks beneath is an antisocial malcontent whose dedication to bad choices — when he has the intelligence to know and the talent to do better — undercuts himself, and worse, his idiotically naive young wife. The truth is, Eddie is trouble. He’s young, unreliable, and infatuated with the idea of love. When he thanks Jo for loving him, perhaps his affection is genuine; maybe he’s too addicted to the idea of being loved to let her go. Like a doomed puppy, she remains by her man’s side till the bitter end, and when the gates of paradise metaphorically open for them in a tangled, existential forest, it’s a mockery of all the genuinely downtrodden people of the earth who manage to scrape by without resorting to self-delusion and crime.

You Only Live Once is a virtuoso young-couple-on-the-run drama, but morally afield. I guess it was just a Bad Time for America. Would that times were morally evolved now, but I can’t say they are. Cinema has a particular romance with outlaws and so-called “outlaw art.” Stories often shoot for moral complexity and flawed characters, but a stubborn consistency in focusing on the outlaw life suggests a much deeper empathy in filmic reality than exists in reality itself. Would you root for Eddie and Jo to cross the border to Mexico or would you place the call if you recognized Jo buying those cigarettes? Would you give Eddie a pass on murder, or would you demand a fair trial and a fair sentence? Film grants these characters, flawed as they are, eternal life and sainthood. Living once for them is living forever for us; they aren’t the dirty-faced angels I want perched on my shoulder. I don’t care how “in love” they are.

By Matt Schneider