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Human Desire (1954)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Human Desire (1954) (aka The Human Beast)

Fritz Lang's grim, noirish tale of fate, infidelity, deceit, blackmail and obsessive passion was based on Emile Zola's 1890 novel La Bete Humaine. This Columbia Pictures remake was already filmed twice before: the silent film Die Bestie im Menschen (1920, Germ.) and Jean Renoir's French film La Bête Humaine (1938, Fr.) (aka The Human Beast).

The film brought together the two main stars of Lang's previous year's classic crime noir The Big Heat (1953) - Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, and it was very similar in plot to Lang's Clash by Night (1952). The suspenseful melodrama's tagline described the femme fatale involved in a love-triangle:

"She was born to be be make trouble!"

In the film's opening, returning Korean War veteran (after three years) and streamliner train brakeman/engineer Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) was beginning to adjust to life on the homefront and work. He took up his old job at the fictional Central National railroad in New Jersey, hauling passenger trains. He resumed boarding in the home of his co-worker Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan). Alec's beautiful, flirtatious, buxom grown-up brunette daughter Ellen (Kathleen Case) caught his eye, and showed off how she was attracted to him. However, Jeff claimed he only wanted a very simple return to ordinary life: "Nothing but a lot of fishing, trains, and for excitement, a big night at the movies."

Three Early Views of Vicki Buckley (Gloria Grahame)

The assistant railway yardmaster Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) was also introduced - he was a violence-prone, moody, brutish and depressed older man. Carl had recently married a trophy wife - no-good femme fatale Vicki Buckley (Gloria Grahame). She was an amoral, erotic, brassy, manipulative and sexually-frustrated, unloved wife. The abusive sloppy drunk could quickly be triggered to show his temper and violent tendencies, and soon enough, was fired from his job for insubordination toward his boss John Thurston (Carl Lee). Vicki offered to work again if they moved east, but he refused ("I don't want my wife working. I didn't marry you so you could take care of me").

The scheming Carl begged his wife Vicki to intervene with influential and powerful businessman John Owens (Grandon Rhodes), who conducted lots of shipping business with the railroad, to restore his job. Owens was the former boss of Vicki's house-keeper mother and a childhood acquaintance. Vicki and Carl took the train to New York City, and while Vicki was away, Carl waited for her. The menacing and domineering Carl suspected that Vicki, who was gone for five hours, had been unfaithful and slept with Owens for the favors she begged for ("What has he got, a private apartment he can drop into for a drink? Is that the bar you went to?"). When she retorted: "Oh, don't paw at me. I'm sick of it, from all of you," he violently threatened to kill her by slapping her and grabbing her. After asking: "You've been making a fool out of me, both of you," he forced her to confess. Then, the black-hearted Carl had her hand-write a message to Owens, who was due to take the night train to Chicago. Vicki requested another rendezvous-meeting with Owens that evening in his sleeping car train compartment:

Darling: My husband is staying in town tonight. I'll come to your compartment after the train leaves the station. Love, Vicki.

All of them were on the night train to Chicago, including Jeff who was off-duty and hitching a ride back home. When Vicki went to the door of Owens' private drawing room compartment, the insanely-jealous Carl also barged in and murdered him with his pocket-knife. The off-screen stabbing occurred behind the closed compartment door - followed by Carl's hand wiping the blood off the blade onto his coat. To cover up, the crime scene was made to look like a robbery had been committed, by taking Owens' wallet and his pocket-watch - and he also removed Vicki's incriminating message.

Jeff became inextricably involved the night of the homicide when he was smoking in the vestibule-corridor between cars near the murder scene. With literal 'blood on his hands,' Carl instructed her to distractedly seduce Jeff so that he could escape unnoticed - and threatened to take the message to the police if Vicki accused him of the lethal stabbing: ("Just get him out of there. And don't get any foolish ideas in your head, Vicki. Remember that letter you wrote"). Vicki befriended Jeff, and successfully led him away. The two went for a drink and conversation in the Club Car, but it was closed, so they opted for a smoke in his empty compartment that ended up with an embrace and a kiss. Jeff was immediately attracted to Vicki.

When Carl and Vicki bumped into Jeff while disembarking at their home station, Vicki pretended to meet Jeff for the first time, and he realized she was actually Mrs. Buckley. In their home, Carl burned his blood-stained coat to eliminate evidence, but refused to burn Vicki's message although she begged him to. He threatened to use it on her: "This letter is gonna keep us together. There's not gonna be anybody else, Vicki."

During the murder trial inquest, as a witness, Jeff protectively avoided identifying Vicki as the passenger in car # 843 that he saw near Owens' compartment. Later, Jeff was skeptical about Vicki's veracity and confronted her for an explanation. Vicki perjured herself to him when she said that she had visited Owens' compartment alone for a sexual liaison but he was already dead.

I couldn't tell him I went to Owens' compartment that night. I wouldn't dare. He'd suspect something awful. I don't know what he might have done to me...He has a terrible temper when he gets jealous.

He asked why she wasn't more distressed or frightened when they were on the train and he saw her leaving Owens' compartment. She also confessed to Jeff that she was in an abusive and unhappy, crumbling marriage, and that hot-tempered Carl frequently beat her - she revealed bruisings on her bare left shoulder:

Jeff's Questioning of Vicki's Veracity
Evidence of Vicki's Abusive Beatings - Bruises on Her Shoulder
Jeff's Sympathy For Vicki's Predicament

Vicki turned cold toward her husband Carl due to the murder, and wouldn't allow him to touch her: ("Every time you touch me, I see you in that compartment, standing over him, with a knife in your hand"). He realized her real intentions when she stated: "If you really loved me, you'd destroy that letter."

Meanwhile, Jeff and Vicki entered into their own torrid and passionate adulterous affair, and it was beginning to be noticed around the small town. His libidinous desire for her led him to demand that she divorce Carl and marry him ("We can't go on meeting this way, like in a borrowed apartment or a railroad shack. That's no good, Vicki. I want you to marry me"). She explained that she was mostly afraid of the police, and then confessed what had really happened the night of Owens' murder. She told how Carl was threatening blackmail with an incriminating message that she wrote if she left him:

The day I got Carl his job back, that same night, Carl killed Owens. I lied to you about finding the body. I was there when he killed him, he forced me to go with him...He thought I was having an affair with Owens...He was like a wild animal. He knocked me down and beat me. He called me names. He said I only married him because I had to. He hit me again and again and again and then, he made me write a letter to Owens, saying I'd meet him on the train...He forced me to get on the train with him. He pushed me into Owens' compartment, closed the door...Carl has the letter I wrote. If he ever showed it to anybody, the police, they'd think I did it. That's what he's holding over me. That's why I can't leave him. That's why I had to lie to you.

Jeff knew he was getting embroiled into something dangerous that could incriminate him too: "I want the whole truth, Vicki, because if I don't go to the police now, I'll be just as guilty as Carl is or you are....You had to tell me about the murder, didn't you? You had to tell me, because once I knew about it, I'd be in it just as deep as you are." Vicki again lied to Jeff and told him that her alleged affair with Owens didn't happen, even though she told him that under pressure when beaten by Carl, she blurted out that it was true. Jeff responded that they'd work things out somehow.

In the meantime, during a conversation Jeff had with Ellen, she asserted that she was the "right girl" for him. She hinted, with tears in her eyes, that she was really in love with him for the right reasons: "I don't know too much about the kind of love that makes people hurt one another. I don't think I want to know. But I do know there are other kinds of love and they're not so hard to find. All you have to do is look for them."

When Carl was again fired from his job, he threatened to sell their house and leave town the next day. Vicki told Jeff about her newest predicament, and that she couldn't find the damning letter. She also warned that if they were found out, Carl would kill Jeff. His own lust for her (and Vicki's own murderous intentions to eliminate Carl) led him to promise to retrieve the letter. She planted a seed in Jeff's head, suggesting that Carl might have an accident in the yard. That evening, Jeff was tempted to nearly kill her violence-prone, drunken, and unstable husband. He grabbed a large monkey wrench and stalked the stumbling Carl in the railyard (seen in an overhead dolly sequence), but then relented and failed to carry through on murder, but he was able to take the letter from Carl's pocket.

Afterwards, he returned to Vicki and told her: "I didn't do it." He told her that murder was wrong and dirty: ("It takes somebody who has no conscience and no decency"). He accused her of playing him for a fool, making him lie on the stand, and then deceiving him and setting him up as Carl's murderer. He said she couldn't really have loved him by manipulating him in that way. In an attempt to win him back, she confessed that she was "no good" - due to her seduction when she was 16 by Owens. After marrying Carl, he continued to harbor jealousy for Owens. She claimed that Jeff would have killed Carl if he really loved her. Jeff decided to end their affair and reject her ("It is finished"), prompting her to admit that it was the wrong thing to do to ask him to kill Carl. Although she again professed her love for him, he gave up on her, but before leaving, he gave her the black-mail message.

In the film's doom-laden, deadly conclusion, as the jilted Vicki was riding on Jeff's train to leave town, Carl entered her compartment and begged her to not desert him. He also offered to give her the message - but she snapped back that he couldn't bargain with her because it was no longer in his possession ("You haven't got me or the letter or a job or anything"). Carl accused her of infidelity with Jeff, but she claimed she was leaving all on her own.

In turn, she taunted him by admitting her love affair with Jeff (but that he had left her because of her request to kill him). She added that she enjoyed seducing Owens to help acquire Carl's job back. Insanely jealous and enraged, Carl then began choking Vicki and strangled her to death. The film had come full circle - she died in an identical-looking compartment similar to the one where Owens was murdered.

The Final Deadly Confrontation Between Vicki and Carl

Engineer Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford)

Ellen (Kathleen Case)

Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) with Wife Vicki

Carl Confronting Vicki About Suspected Adultery with Owens

Carl Wiping Blood Off Pocket Knife After Murdering Owens

Vicki Distracting Jeff From the Murder Scene on Train

The Incriminating Message Vicki Was Forced to Write to Owens

Long, Heart-felt Conversations Between Jeff and Vicki

Beginning of Torrid Affair with Jeff

Jeff Tempted to Either Find the Message or Kill Carl

Jeff Stalking Carl

Vicki Stunned that Jeff Didn't Murder Carl

Jeff's Refusal to Do Vicki's Dirty Work By Killing Carl


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