Edgar Buchanan always annoyed me endlessly on Green Acres reruns, and it’s affected me for a long time. Because only recently have I begun to realize just how broad and robust his body of film work is. He can be categorized with a breed of movie actor that is generally lost in today’s industry.
These were studio workhorses with filmographies so abundant it almost becomes second nature for them to don certain roles. It happens so easily and with such regularity, there’s rarely a need for explanation. It’s all right there in the character and the countless other pictures he’s popped up in before. His part is small but it doesn’t matter.
Because he is the kind of actor only Hollywood of a certain era would have utilized to his full potential. Why does any of this relate to the discussion of this film? My best explanation is the fact Human Desire is not a standalone entry. It comes from a lineage boasting Emile Zola and Jean Renoir’s Le Bete Humaine. And yet Human Desire can be viewed as nothing less than noir cranked out of the salt mines of Hollywood.
The traditions of Michel Carne and Jean Renoir, themselves in the late 30s, coalesced with the early works of Fritz Lang, like M (1931), to form a sturdy foundation to this American iteration of crime cinema. There’s no doubt Lang and Renoir were aware of each other. An obvious point of reference is the fact Lang would adapt La Chienne into a film of his own — Scarlet Street.
Human Desire is his second go at the eminent Frenchman’s filmography, albeit less to his liking. Lang’s railroad imagery isn’t quite on par with the evocative ever smoky grittiness of Renoir’s earlier effort and part of it must be chalked up to interiors which strip away much of the rail tie reality.
In even brief interludes there could be overlap with the work of the Frenchman’s father or other famed realist artists of generations before and there are quite a few lighter, brighter tones, although Le Bete Humaine is still a notable precursor to noir cinematography.
But then it gets dicey because Lang himself came out of the other tradition which all but berthed the dark genre, German Expression, with films like M or American pictures like Fury and You Only Live Once, unmistakable for their equally brooding imagery.
Renoir has an appreciation for the everyman’s daily life as it pertains to this world of grunge and brutality. There manages to be something real, this animal magnetism — a literal madness that somehow feels more authentic.
Lang picks up solely on the total bleakness of a canvas bathed in black. It’s suffocating in that sense. He also functions better within the facades and inherent artificiality of the Hollywood system. Renoir tried it too, and it proved more stifling than productive. Lang, perhaps out of necessity, used the resources more to his advantage.
After the stirring success of The Big Heat, he comes back with his two stars in Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame to do it again. It’s unfairly overshadowed even as Grahame turns in a blistering, merciless performance as a conniving wife. But as with all black widows, the exterior begins demure and innocent enough. It only evolves and becomes more malevolently deadly as time marches on.
The newfound lens of a returning soldier fits into the context of the era. Because Human Desire is a story revamped for 1950s America, and it translates itself easily enough. Jeff Warren (Ford) is coming home from the army with ideals of a steady job, fishing on weekends, and nights at the movies with a pretty girl. It presents this fresh exterior just waiting to be dragged through the mire.
Because the conventions of American-grade noir, in particular, make for a compelling tale of lust and sleaze. Not that they were entirely absent in Renoir’s picture but they have a different effect.
Human Desire throws together a femme fatale and a formerly clean-cut veteran whose eyes bulge out of his sockets the first time he snatches a glance at the girl. They are not perpetrators of murder by they are implicated in the following courtroom proceedings with Warren complicit in a cover-up. There is a streamlined love triangle between Ford, Grahame, and Broderick Crawford that rarely feels interesting on its own merits.
At its best, it lives out its existence on the screen as a low-grade railway riff on Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. There are obvious antecedents in its French predecessor but somehow in this context, it seems applicable to canonize it as noir. Emile Zola never felt closer to James M. Cain.
I could only consider the very concrete plot points, not the literary styles themselves. Because Human Desire, of course, is not literary at all — or if it, it is only in the pulpy seediness such entertainment engendered.
Renoir could actually claim some basis in Zola’s literature, not simply by his pedigree but also by evoking the words themselves. Regardless, the two creatures have their distinct appeals for two diverse camps. There’s no question the two helmsmen were a pair of phenomenal craftsman deserving individual repute. The differences in them are as beguiling as the similarities. The same might be said of Human Desire and its forefather. Choose your poison and my guess is you won’t be disappointed either way.