|Vicki (Gloria Grahame)|
The BFI is currently showing a season of Gloria Grahame films to coincide with the newly released Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool - a biopic of sorts based on a memoir by one of Grahame's boyfriends. On 21 November I watched a sell-out screening of Human Desire, a 1954 noir directed by Fritz Lang. Most critics agree that it isn't Lang's greatest noir, but all confer that Grahame's performance elevates the film above muddled mediocrity. Many of these commentators remark on the manipulative nature of Grahame's character, Vicki, with her seductive pout and sluttish nature. My take on Vicki is different, I see her as a woman just trying to get by after being abused as a teenager and I feel intense sympathy for a woman who David Parkinson notes is, 'less a femme fatale than a tragic feminist, trapped in the knowledge that “Most women are unhappy, they just pretend they aren’t.”' Vicki's backstory is ambiguous and she does not always seem to be reliable, however if close attention is paid to Grahame's performance and the way she looks (a child-woman who over-applies her makeup), I believe that the truth is there. These nuances of performance seem to have escaped many commenters who lazily mark Vicki with the broad brush of identikit femme fatale.
Human Desire is based on a Zola novel and is a remake of Renoir's La Bette Humaine (1938). The characters are working class and in many cases down on their luck. In Hollywood films of this era the all-American family life always wins out over the temptations of sex and excitement. This seals the fate of the film's everyman hero, Korean war vet, train driver, Jeff, (Glenn Ford), who chooses the safe devotion of his workmate's daughter, Vera, over the erotic allure of his work colleague's wife Vicki (Gloria Grahame).
|Vicki shows Carl her new stockings.|
We first see Vicki lounging at home before coquettishly showing her new stockings to her oafish husband Carl. She appears to be the personification of Janey Place's narcissistic noir woman. Uninterested in her charms Carl informs her that he has lost his job and begs her to go and see Owens, an important man that her mother used to work for. Vicki says that she'd 'rather not', but Carl implores her and blurts out, 'I've got nobody else to turn to'. Touched by his vulnerability she eventually gives in and arranges to visit Owens the next day. Although we are never reliably informed of the relationship between the much older Owens and Vicki (in some part I assume because of film censorship in the 1950s) we can safely say that they have been involved in some way. In the essay, '"I Can't Tell Anymore Whether You're Lying": Double Indemnity, Human Desire and the Narratology of Femmes Fatales' Steve Neale outlines the four different accounts Vicki offers of her relationship with Owens, each designed to serve the needs of the situation she is in.
'...the first to a jealous and violent Carl on returning late from her meeting with Owens; the second to Jeff when he accuses her of having conspired to involve him in an affair in order to protect herself; the third in response to Jeff's decision to leave; and the fourth to Carl at the end of the film.' (193)
|Vicki meets Owens to persuade him to give Carl back his job.|
We have no knowledge of the truth of the situation and most commentaries have taken the fact that Vicki must be lying on three of these occasions as an indicator of her duplicitous 'spider woman' nature. My reading is different. Vicki is ashamed of her relationship with Owens. Her third explanation, made to Jeff when he tells her he is leaving her, is I would argue the real explanation. I believe the clues to this are contained in Grahame's performance and in particular 'the sincerity of her distress' in her break up scene with Jeff (Neale: 195). Vicki in all probability slept with Owens to win Carl back his job. This is indicated by her discomfort when Carl 'paws her' after she returns late from Owen's office and her intense desire to undress and shower. Carl really is a despicable character (even before he murders Owens) as it is inconceivable that he did not know what he was sending Vicki to do with Owens in order to win his job back, and then he beats her to convince himself that he was not complicit in her selling her body for his job.
|Vicki attempts to protect herself from Carl's blows after her return from her meeting with Owens|
Vicki's third explanation of her history with Owens is also eminently plausible. That is as a 16 year old in the house of her mother's employer she felt obliged to succumb to the advances of the older powerful man because as she says, 'I was too frightened to say anything.' This scene which by dint of 'Grahame's performance gives us convincing access to Vicki's real feelings' (Neal: 195), also allows us to see Jeff as more than a victim of her spider woman actions. 'Your conscience didn't stop you from making love to me, did it?' Vicki tells him. Once again Neale sums things up nicely;
'As she implies, he is a little too self-righteous, a little too eager to disavow his earlier behaviour. He is a little too quick to make a pass at her on the train, and just as he will soon be too quick to contemplate using the ticket to go to the dance and thus take advantage of Ellen's youthful and inexperienced feelings for him.' (195)
|Vicki and Jeff's erotic encounter in the goods yard.|
Vicki may not have made the smartest decisions but she is, in my opinion, an abused woman. Her over-applied makeup, that is lipstick over her lip-line, eyebrows obviously painted on and less than perfect eyeliner, indicate that she, as mentioned earlier, is appropriating the trappings of a woman or as it were masquerading as a femme fatale. She tries to escape from a relationship initiated by a powerful older man, Owens, by marrying another older man, Carl, because he 'had a nice face'. Despite her commitment to him (she is desperate for a happy stable home) his feckless nature destroys the security she craves and his growing violence means that the relationship is unsafe. The salvation offered by her lover, Jeff, is it seems firmly based on lust (in one striking scene where he and Vicki get together after dark in the goods yard he violently pulls her hair as he roughly kisses her) and he ultimately throws her aside when she tells him the truth about her past opting instead for a simpler relationship with an 'unspoiled' woman (Vera). These men are all dishonourable specimens and Vicki is their victim.
|Vicki applies lipstick before her encounter with Jeff|
Gloria Grahame's portrayal of Vicki is masterly, she makes a character that on the surface is unsympathetic, human and understandable. Her application of a new coat of lipstick in order to distract the, as yet unknown, Jeff from seeing her husband in Owens' train compartment, is on the surface a callous act of self obsession. Or to read it another way, it is a practical act of survival - a way of coping with the terrible events she has just witnessed and of carrying out the task her husband has set her in order to avoid angering him. In the final scene of the film, after she has decided to leave her husband and take control of her life, the murderous Carl, unable to accept that she can live without him, kills her. Thus the 'scarlet woman' is eliminated and the status quo of 1950s America with its veneer of domestic bliss is maintained.
Vicki may appear to be a woman of her own time in her acceptance of her treatment by men. But is she so very different from the numerous women who have been reporting accounts of abuse by powerful men in recent months? I would suggest not.
|Vicki's final deadly encounter with Carl.|
Neale, Steve, '"I Can't Tell Anymore Whether You're Lying": Double Indemnity, Human Desire and the Narratology of Femmes Fatales' in Helen Hanson & Catherine O'Rawe (eds), The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2010)
Parkinson, David, 'Gloria Grahame: 10 essential films', http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/gloria-grahame-10-essential-films , 13.11.2017
Place, Janey, 'Women in Film Noir' in E Ann Kaplan (ed), Women in Film Noir (London: BFI, 1980)