human desire

© 2013 William Ahearn

The second Jean Renoir film that Fritz Lang remade and far from the success – financially or critically – of “Scarlet Street.” Renoir’s film – “La Bête humaine” was part of a group of films made in the 1930s in France that were deemed “films noir” by French film critics. It’s where the term began and following the history of Lang’s version illustrates why a real film noir could rarely be made in Hollywood using the same source material.

Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang describes the problems Lang faced with the script. “The Hays Office,” she wrote, “frowned on sex maniacs or epileptics in main roles. The American hero had to be sympathetic and normal, as a prerequisite of the American dream. Glenn Ford following his performance in ‘The Big Heat’ was chosen for the main role, in which Columbia [Studios], carefully guarding their star’s ‘image’ insisted he present a completely normal and hard-working person.”

(At one point Lang suggested Peter Lorre for the role to the producers hoping, or so the story goes, that would allow for a darker story. After working on “M,” Lorre barely spoke to Fritz Lang and the idea was doomed from the onset.)

The revisions went farther than merely cleaning up the role for Glenn Ford. Lang recalled a conversation with Jerry Wald – that Patrick McGilligan includes in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast – where Wald said, “Everybody in your picture is bad.” “Naturally,” Lang responded, “because Zola wanted to show that in every human being is a beast.” “You [Lang and writer Alfred Hayes] don’t understand it,” said Wald, “the woman is the human beast.”

So Jeff (Glenn Ford) becomes an ex-GI fresh from Korea. One popular “film noir” website explains it all: “Though Jeff may be the weakest character of the trio, he takes us back to the disillusioned vets of WWII who cannot adjust to the homefront once again.” That typical “noir” canard of the “disillusioned vet” is once again obviously incorrect as Jeff isn’t disillusioned at all. Certainly not with the war or his life. His life is pretty much just as he left it and he’s welcomed by open arms and given his job back. Ultimately, the corrupt atmosphere of Renoir’s film is reduced to the evil of Vicki Buckley (Gloria Graham) and her violent and possessive husband, Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) and Jeff’s indiscretion is redeemed when he begins to court the “good girl” and all is once again right with the world.

Two other French films noir were remade into gutless Hollywood remakes: “Le Jour se lève,” directed by Marcel Carné in 1939 was remade as “The Long Night” in 1947 and directed by Anatole Litvak; and Pépé le Moko, directed by Julien Duvivier in 1937 was remade as “Algiers” in 1938 by John Cromwell. Both original films were deemed “films noir” by the French press in the 1930s and a comparison between original and remake show quite clearly how the Hays Office insistence on morality and the studios’ penchant for happy endings scuttled any possibility that the Hollywood versions would be anything but ghosts of the originals.

The issue of memory and film criticism arises again and in Fritz Lang, Lotte Eisner remarks, “Renoir followed Zola’s ending: the engine-driver and stoker fight in their hatred and are thrown from the train and killed. The driverless train crashes, and all in it perish.” Clearly, this is not the ending to the Renoir film and leads to the assumption that Eisner is misremembering the film that Eisner may have only seen once years before. Or, that she never saw it. These days, owning both of these films is possible and a critical mistake such as that is limited only to the dense or the deluded.

The reviews in the US weren’t good. In his 1954 write up, Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times, noted:

“When the story presented in this picture was done some years ago in a French film directed by Jean Renoir, with Jean Gabin and Simone Simon as its stars, there was, at least, a certain haunting terror, a certain mood of dark malevolence conveyed. The mind of the locomotive driver became an area of agonizing pain, and the pounding of railroad wheels and the shriek of whistles credibly drove the man insane.

“But,” Crowther continued, “even that morbid fascination is missing from this film, which has been directed in a flat, lethargic fashion by the usually creative Fritz Lang.”

Variety wrote, “Fritz Lang, director, goes overboard in his effort to create mood. Long focusing on locomotive speeding and twisting on the rails is neither entertaining nor essential to the plot.”

Where criticism of “Human Desire” failed is on the part of French critics – many of whom went on to become prominent directors – who relied on the auteur theory without realizing the constraints most Hollywood directors worked under.

Writing in Arts in 1955, François Truffaut noted that “The confrontation of these two works is extremely rewarding since it reveals how two of the greatest men of the cinema treated the same subject diverging in their conception of content and of form while each of them succeeded in making one of the best films of their careers.”

As with Jean-Luc Godard (noted earlier), Truffaut seems to be utterly ignorant of how Hollywood films actually got made and the similar gushing about “Human Desire” being “one of the best films” of Lang’s career borders on the embarrassing. Lang was quite clear about how he thought about the reception to “Human Desire” in France. In a 1959 interview with Jacques Rivette in Cahiers du Cinéma, Lang responded to a question from Rivette with “I would very much like to speak about it, but Renoir’s film is better . . . My film isn’t ‘La Bête humaine.’ It was called ‘Human Desire.’ It was inspired by a book, a film. I wonder why you gave it a good review in your Cahiers?” “Formally,” Rivette responded, “your film is very good.” “Thanks very much, you are very kind” Lang said, “but it wasn’t ‘La Bête humaine.’” In The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak, Lang was quoted as saying, “[“Human Desire”] was a great success in France, I don’t know why. It certainly didn’t deserve it.”

What “Human Desire” does deserve is recognizing the technical prowess that Lang exerted even when the patient was wheeled in dead on arrival. Variety makes a good point about the speeding trains not being essential to the plot. Many of those railroad shots and sequences were planned in Canada by Lang and Alfred Hayes prior to the script being gutted and as much as the “noirists” claim to the contrary, none of the photography is “expressionistic.” As with “Ministry of Fear,” Lang knew he was filming a sham plot and did what he could. Frederick Ott describes it as a “flaccid adaptation.” This is one case where Lang was accurate in assessing his own film.

During this time Lang worked on a script titled “Dark Spring” that centers on a young girl whose stepfather is trying to kill her to get her inheritance. According to Bogdanovich, the “problem of casting the young girl” led to Lang dropping the project.