The director Fritz Lang’s American output includes moody masterpieces such as Scarlet Street, The House by the River, Clash by Night and The Big Heat. If you haven’t yet encountered these movies, all of which helped to define film noir as one of the greatest of all American art forms, you’re in for a dark and disturbing treat.
However, even Lang had his longueurs, and Human Desire, the curtain-raiser on the new five CD collection, Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II, is unfortunately one of them. The tale of a returning Korean War veteran (Glenn Ford) who falls in lust with the kittenish wife (Gloria Grahame) of his boss on the railroad (Broderick Crawford), Human Desire runs off the rails mostly because of its performances.
Broderick Crawford is one of those big lugs whose volume control dial has been permanently stuck somewhere between “bluster” and “bellow” — he’s one of the most tiresome actors in Hollywood history. Glenn Ford is fine, but it’s hard to believe he would fall for Gloria Grahame, who looks like she’s had an anachronistic double dose of Botox — her tiny little mouth appears permanently frozen — when he could have had, instead, the incredibly sexy “nice” girl, the daughter of a friend and fellow engineer, who throws herself at him throughout the movie.
As a result, Ford’s decision not only to go for Grahame but to consider getting involved in a murder plot is never as believable as it should be; Ford’s “desire” seems less “human” than a screenwriter’s easy invention. (Presumably Emile Zola handled the issue of motivation better in the novel, La Bete Humaine, upon which this story is based.)
Thinking I might have missed something, I turned to a brief on-camera commentary in the DVD’s special features section by the actress Emily Mortimer. She was wonderful in the overlooked indie Lovely and Amazing, but what she’s doing commenting on a Fritz Lang film is beyond me, and clearly beyond her as well; she seems uncomfortable throughout, and over the course of just a few minutes of un-illuminating analysis uses the phrase “sort of” 21 times by actual count.
City of Fear
Some of the other movies in this collection — all making their debuts on DVD — have an also-ran quality to them. The Brothers Rico should have been much better than it is, given that it’s based on a Georges Simenon story and stars Richard Conte, who knows his way around a line of tough-guy dialogue. Conte plays a successful laundry owner with one little stain on his resume — he’s a former mob accountant. Make that two stains — his brothers are still in the mob, and Conte gets pulled back into the dirty business as he tries to save them, himself, and his happy family. It’s not a bad movie, and the fact that the Rico brothers feel a degree of immunity from the mob because their mother, who operates a tiny candy store, once saved the mob boss’ life, adds an interesting wrinkle, but the story doesn’t deliver much suspense or complexity otherwise.
Pushover, a crooked-cop drama starring Fred MacMurray, is flat-out tedious, and anyone who’s familiar with MacMurray’s film performances won’t be surprised to learn that he’s the titular easy mark. The only film in this collection that really grips from beginning to end is City of Fear, which begins, even before the opening titles, with a gut-shot gangster, his fellow prison escapee (Vince Edwards), and a metal canister filled with stolen heroin. We soon learn, however, what Edwards does not: The “heroin” is actually a deadly radioactive substance.
This tight and frightening little police procedural observes both Edwards as he struggles to open the canister to sell the “heroin” and gradually, in the process, succumbs to radiation poisoning, and the authorities, as they attempt, Geiger counters in hand, to track down Edwards. Fortunately, the demise of Edwards is not portrayed nearly as graphically as it would be in an over-obvious contemporary movie (no oozing pustules or technicolor vomit), but is still pretty effective, as is the image of Edwards’ girlfriend, who also is exposed to the radioactivity, mutating from a gorgeous young woman to a sick and sweat-drenched object of pity.
The citywide panic that the authorities keep on worrying about never happens, probably because the film’s budget wasn’t big enough to portray crowds of terrified citizens escaping a radioactive city, and this tight focus makes the movie seem a little less ambitious than it could have been. Yet it also keeps our attention riveted to Edwards and, along to the way, to the contemporary resonance created by the image of a lone psychopath on the loose with a weapon of mass destruction.
For newcomers to film noir, this collection is clearly not the place to get started, but for those who’ve experienced the twisted beauties that constitute the best of the genre, this is an uneven compilation with a few bleakly satisfying moments.