Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Reflections on ... Gloria Grahame in Human Desire (1954)

/ The gloriously feline Gloria Grahame /

Last week I watched Human Desire (1954), the hard-boiled, fatalistic Fritz Lang-directed film noir starring Glenn Ford and the sensational (or should that be sin-sational?) Gloria Grahame (“born to be BAD, to be KISSED, to make TROUBLE!”). In fact I watched it twice. Human Desire represented a reunion for the trio of Lang, Ford and Grahame: the year before they made the more celebrated The Big Heat (1953). 

The film is a loose remake of the haunting, very different 1938 French film La Bête humaine  directed by Jean Renoir. Smouldering young heartthrob Ford (that deep growling voice! That dark pomaded hair!) plays a Korean vet returning to small town life and his job as a train engineer – who gets ensnared in the toxic, potentially murderous marriage of his violent colleague (Broderick Crawford) and frustrated wife (Grahame).

Human Desire isn’t a prestigious film. It’s considered a minor work in Lang's oeuvre, is overshadowed in peoples’ memories by The Big Heat and regarded as inferior to La Bête humaine. For Lang, Ford and Grahame Human Desire was probably just another routine job or contractual obligation and business as usual. But seen today – 62 years later – Human Desire looks like a paragon of tight craftsmanship and tough, absorbing noir storytelling.  The tale of tense, desperate lives played out in shadows and penned-in by smoke-belching trains and a bleak landscape of criss-crossing train tracks, it throbs with tension, claustrophobia and atmosphere.   

Certainly the lead performances give Human Desire an edge. Broderick Crawford as the abusive husband is nominally the story’s villain. But the remarkable character actor Crawford depicts him as so mired in self-loathing, weakness, jealousy and alcoholism, he’s ultimately pathetic and even tragic. If anyone owns the film, though, it’s Gloria Grahame. As always, the perma-pouting Grahame (1923 - 1981) injects her trampy, insolent vixen role with complexity, humanity, perversity and bruised soul. 

She was perhaps never better than giving her confessional monologue to Ford as the doomed, slapped-around  Vicki in Human Desire. (“It’s hard for a girl, drifting from job to job ... most women are unhappy, they just pretend they aren’t … I guess I’m not much of a woman – or a wife”).  And Grahame looks wild in the film: with crazily over-drawn lip-line (worthy of Divine) and a wardrobe of hoop earrings, seamed stockings, berets, tightly-belted trench coats, pencil skirts and some serious bullet bras under tight sweaters. 

/ Glenn Ford and sweater girl Gloria Grahame (and a killer bullet bra) in Human Desire /

The late film historian John Kobal (1940 - 1991) is far more eloquent on the subject of Grahame’s screen persona than me. Calling her the “fallen-blonde, pouty-lipped, sinful-eyed angel” of noir cinema, in his book Hollywood Colour Portraits (1981) he argues “nobody else was quite like Gloria Grahame – glittering with the barely controlled fires seething beneath the social veneer. While she herself was no criminal, her presence alone could incite men to criminal actions if only to attract her attention as she prowled big city streets – so sultry, so spiteful, so wanton, and so lethal if the mood took her and the man didn’t. She was the great bitch goddess, shedding her coats like snakes their skin, and tugging at the tight coils of her hair to conjure up a world of bedrooms in disarray. Her freezing looks were as memorable as her scalding actions, and whether she made only one film like that or fifty she would still have made her niche ... silk or sack, her clothes are only worn to be torn; for her all things are black or white, and anarchy is the roost she rules.”

1 comment:

  1. With her quivering voice and sad sad eyes, Gloria Graheme never stood a chance. Vulnerable yet defiant, she was to be saved and then beaten by lovers who always changed their minds. Unlike Stanwyck or Crawford, she could not survive mid 20th century machismo by pretending to be happy.