Power Couple: Glenn Ford & Gloria Grahame in ‘The Big Heat’ (1953) and ‘Human Desire’ (1954)

* Published specifically for The Glenn Ford Blogathon hosted by Eva at Coffee, Classics, and Craziness & Rachel at Hamlette’s Siloquy *

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Over the course of Glenn Ford’s long and illustrious career, he had the opportunity to star alongside the Golden Age of Hollywood’s most beautiful leading ladies. Rita Hayworth is probably the best known and most revered of them all, owing to the massive success of 1946’s Gilda. She and Glenn set the screen alight with their good looks, intense chemistry and an unforgettable story. Theirs was more than just a working relationship, however. They maintained a love affair that crossed over four decades.

As a matter of fact, Glenn had a tendency to get romantically involved with a number of his female co-stars that would often not last beyond periods of filming. Some of them could have gone the distance while others were just meant to fizzle out. The latter is exactly what happened with Glenn and Gloria Grahame, one of my favourite couplings. According to Glenn’s son Peter, the two actors were strictly professional whilst making 1953’s The Big Heat but that they embarked on a sexual fling during the shoot for 1954’s Human Desire. Peter also noted that Glenn’s and Gloria’s attitudes mimicked those of their respective characters in each film, which was essentially life imitating art. Whatever the exact nature of their relationship, Glenn and Gloria were memorable screen partners who complimented each other so well that it is almost hard to believe that they made only two films together.

The Big Heat

Police Sergeant David Bannion (Glenn Ford) investigates the suicide of fellow policeman Tom Duncan when the circumstances of his death start becoming suspicious. His interest in the cast is rebuffed by his superiors who believe that Bannion should not be putting his nose where it doesn’t belong. He is eventually fired for his continued pressing of Duncan’s widow and the fact that he beat up the bodyguard of a certain Mike Lagana, a man of questionable integrity who also has an immense power of persuasion in high society.  Lagana’s subsequent attempt on Bannion’s life goes horribly awry when his wife is killed instead.

Bannion (left) and Stone (right)

Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) is Lagana’s right-hand man in organised crime. Stone has no consideration for human life, caring only about saving his own skin and exacting cruel revenge whenever the mood hits him. Even his girlfriend Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) is not exempt from his wrath. One evening in a fit of jealous rage, Vince throws the contents of a boiling pot of coffee on Debby’s face. Half of her face and neck are severely scarred, disfiguring her and robbing the young woman of her natural good looks. Debby seeks protection from Bannion, who more than ever has a reason to put an end to Lagana’s corrupt reign.

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One aspect of this picture that I really appreciate is the fact that although it is a crime film noir, it is not overly hard around the edges. You have a sense of danger but it is nothing that will eat you up the entire time or one that will play on your nerves. The moments with Bannion and his wife at home give good balance, as do the scenes between Bannion and Debby. We hear the sordid details of a woman’s death involving beatings and torture, including strangling, cigarette burns, and rape, but are spared even the slightest look at her demise. That being said, when Vince Stone is displaying his “finest”, there is no looking back. Marvin’s characterisation of Stone is absolutely scary and psychotic. Imagine pitting him against Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo, undoubtedly one of noir’s all-time menacing villains.

Glenn ideally played Bannion as a calm and collected fellow of high moral standing. There is not an ounce of dirty cop in him. It genuinely comes as a surprise to him that there is criminal corruption within his precinct. Although he is a do-gooder, he is not easily fooled but still wants to do things by the book, with justice. He does have a lot of pent up anger about his wife’s death that pushes him on at least two occasions to attempt to kill those involved. It is not clear what motivates him in holding back but it is obvious that his spirit is very hard to break. This emotional stiffness makes him an efficient cop and may make it appear that is uncaring though this could not be farther from the truth. He has a deep love for his family and when Debby is in need of help he shows her a great deal of tenderness. There is no overly happy ending for him and honestly I do not think that he would even know what to do with one. I suppose that life returning to quasi-normality is good enough for him.

Bannion and his wife, Katie. Look at the size of that steak for two!

The breath of fresh air in this film is Debby, gloriously portrayed by Gloria Grahame. Sure, she was beautiful and oozed sex appeal but that is not why her character shines. Debby had been Vince’s girl for some time before the events in the film. She had seen her fair share of bad behaviour from Vince; so much so that she innately knew when to butt out and turn a blind eye to his lifestyle. What I deduce from the details Debby shares is that her life pre-Vince was awfully lousy and that she must have gone through her fair share of suffering. As she says to Bannion, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.” Her abusive past had one remarkable effect on her, however. She maintained a cheerful demeanour, allowing her to look on the bright side of things. This mindset helped her cope with being trapped in Vince’s world but at least not exposed to the conditions of her past.

Bannion: “Is that how it is — being his girl?”

Debby: “Most times it’s a lot of fun… expensive fun. You’ve got to take the bad with the good.”

Bannion: “Is the good good enough?”

Coupled in a non-romantic sense, Bannion and Debby provide each other good company and bring out the best sides of each other. In different circumstances, they surely would have been good pals. Glenn and Gloria were magnificent and it is obvious that they meshed well together both in their shared scenes and behind the camera. Their chemistry would be on a completely other level in their next project.

Human Desire

It has been 3 years and 43 days since Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) was drafted into the Korean War and last worked his job as a train conductor. He is happy to be back and to see familiar faces again. Coming off of his shift, he crosses paths with co-worker Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) who has since been promoted to Assistant Yard Master. Jeff also learns that Carl has taken an attractive, much younger wife named Vicki (Gloria Grahame). There is not much excitement in Jeff’s town and for some reason he does not seem receptive to the romantic advances of a young woman named Ellen who he has known for quite some time.

At the Buckley’s household, things are not peaches and roses. Carl, who is flagrant in his inebriety and with his temper, manages to get himself fired after having a heated argument with his boss. Knowing that Vicki’s friendship with the rich and powerful John Owens can help get his job back, he pressures her into contacting him. Although Vicki is not crazy about the idea at first, she eventually goes along with it. She manages to get Carl his job back but also to enrage him by staying out all day with Owens. In a fit of uncontrollable jealousy, Carl murders Owens on a train headed to Chicago. It is just so happens that Jeff is on the same train.

Using Vicki once more to suit his interests, Carl orders her to distract Jeff so that he will not be able to connect him to Owen’s murder. Jeff is immediately attracted to Vicki, who has yet to identify herself as Carl’s wife, and starts heavily flirting with her. After they kiss, there is no turning back and so begins a passionate, risky affair. How far will Jeff go to appease an unhappy Vicki?

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Director Fritz Lang was not crazy about the title Human Desire although the film encompasses just that subject. It is essentially a study in human behaviour. Not only that, it is a striking portrayal of small town Americana post-WWII yet before significant economic rebound. What you get it is a story of ordinary people and the dramatic events surrounding them that is far from mundane.

Like everyone, Jeff has obvious character flaws and is an overall good person. He does, however, manage to act like a complete cad especially when it comes to the ladies. It is not easy to identify the driving force behind Jeff’s infatuation with Vicki. He has Ellen’s undying dedication and no trouble going on in his life but that does not seem to satisfy him, even though he does not outwardly display any restlessness. Maybe he is in a daze from having been gone for so long and could even be suffering from war-related PTSD. Whatever the case, Jeff goes out on a limb for Vicki by protecting her on the witness stand (when the Owens case goes to court) and then from Carl’s manipulative clutches. Is it that he enjoys playing the hero? Does he believe that saving Vicki will subdue the trauma of having killed foreign enemies during the war?

Vicki is also a good-natured person who would have been contented living a no-frills life with Carl. Despite their age gap, Vicki was attracted to the idea of Carl being a decent man who would treat her right. When Carl loses his job, she does not become angry or disappointed. Instead, she immediately thinks about how this turn of events could work out in their favour. Perhaps they can go back East or maybe she could even go back to work, just as she had done before their marriage. Vicki’s display of tenderness and understanding towards of her husband is evidence of the pure love she has for him.

Carl is the one who rebuffs Vicki, first becoming paranoid and then abusive. He does not seem to care a thing for Vicki other than her being a trophy wife and satisfying his carnal lust. When Carl finds out about Vicki’s past sexual relationship with Owens, he openly considers her as “leftovers”. He insinuates that her not being a virgin when they married was a betrayal. It is not clear whether Carl beat Vicki before the incident with Owens although Vicki hints at such when talking with Jeff. (It is unclear whether she is stretching the truth to gain Jeff’s sympathy or if she is being truthful.) One thing is sure: Vicki has suffered at the hands of men in the past and considers that they only see her as a piece of meat.

This trio of dysfunctional, tragic characters are all brilliantly played. You can always count on Glenn Ford to give a solid, rugged performance. Regrettably he was never a darling of the critics and some outright panned his acting abilities. Nevertheless, Glenn was always an actor who was both popular with audiences and in-demand to be hired. Gloria Grahame plays, in my opinion, one of her most robust characters and unlike in The Big Heat, she gets ample screen time playing Vicki. Much like Debby, Vicki has been knocked around in life and her scars are very deep. It is sadder to watch Vicki’s evolution because you can see her literally falling apart in front of your eyes. There is no chance for her redemption even though she is as deserving of it as Debby. Judging from the intensity of their scenes together, particularly those when Carl roughs up Vicki, it must have been a very demanding shoot for Gloria. Broderick Crawford’s Carl is a maniacal mess with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Vicki must have been in a pretty bad spot to end up with him in the first place.

“How do you tell the right girl for you from the wrong one?”

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While The Big Heat and Human Desire are very different pictures, both are categorised as film noir and, interestingly enough, directed by revered filmmaker Fritz Lang. Their dark themes and violence are as disturbing and shocking as they are intriguing; pulling you in with smart dialogue and multi-layered characters. They demand your attention and also a certain degree of emotional investment so that the stories really come alive. Films like these are not casual viewing but are entertaining in their own way. Do yourself a favour by watching them and, if you have already seen them, to give them a most welcome revisit. You can never go wrong with Glenn Ford.  🖤


12 thoughts on “Power Couple: Glenn Ford & Gloria Grahame in ‘The Big Heat’ (1953) and ‘Human Desire’ (1954)

  1. Oh Erica!!! I’m so glad to see your writing again! It’s been too long but your article on Glenn and Gloria shows you’ve lost none of your brilliance. The Big Heat is a top notch noir that I’ve always loved. I like your analysis of Bannion as a man with emotional stiffness as a survival trait; yet deeply motivated by love for those he cares about. What tension would that create in the man? At what point does that facade crack? Or does that give him the edge of over those he’s trying to bring to justice?

    I haven’t seen Human Desire in years and I need to see it again. I like that it’s a noir in small town America and that the dysfunction between the characters has been pre-empted by deep running concerns. It’s the very disatisfaction of American society and the letdown after WW2 that seems to infect everything – a strong running theme in film noir.

    Always love your work Erica! Thanks so much!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. G’day, Paul! I’m postively blushing over here. Thank you so much for your positive remarks. It has indeed been a while since I wrote, mostly due to just being burnt out on life. Also, I’ve learned that I cannot work much at all during the summer owing to the constant presence of my kids. I’m sure that you can relate!

      You hit the nail on the head with Bannion. It’s funny because he’s so unemotional on the outside yet so sweet on the inside. He’s so kind to Debby as she is lying there dying, almost like he is treating her like his own daughter. I get the impression that Bannion would never remarry under any circumstance. It seems that no one will replace Katie and that he will simple take a deep dive into his work, only resurfacing to care for his little girl.
      As for HUMAN DESIRE, I’d definitely recommend a re-watch. I happened to see it in HD and boy, it was so sleek and gorgeous! It only enhances the experience. I felt myself very drawn to the character of Vicki and think that a whole paper could be written just about her. Just to give you fair warning, the film will sit with you for a while. The intensity of writing this article actually stayed with me for days afterwards. This is Classic Film at its best!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do understand what you mean about the difficulties in writing and being burnt out! It can get you down when your writing doesn’t get much attention but I get inspired by fellow writers – so seeing a fellow writer writing again is a real inspiration. So thank you!

        I also sense that Bannion would remain alone – whilst all our advice to him would be to get back out there and find love (even a fling!) But as you said, nobody can replace Katie. That’s how he is – reminds me of one of my great-grandfathers whose wife died when she was young and he never remarried. He slept every night with a cravat she had given him under his pillow till the day he died . Some people are like that!

        I WILL have to watch Human Desire again and more than happy for the film to hold onto me for a while. I love that experience and I find the same happens when I’ve written an article on a film which has given me that feeling. I felt that way about All The King’s Men but especially Vertigo when I wrote about it. Hope you do write that article about Vicki! Would enjoy reading it!

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    1. Aw, thank you! I really got into the head of the characters and tried to understand their motivations. I’ve seen both films on numerous occasions and they are fantastic, never getting old or boring. I would be very interested to hear how you like them whenever you get the chance to see them. I’m definitely in the mood for Noirvember already! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I definitely want to see The Big Heat at some point–what an excellent post about these two films! Thanks so much for participating in the Glenn Ford Blogathon. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I was so happy to participate and am awfully glad that Glenn finally had his chance in the spotlight. He contributed so much that you could even bring the event back in the years to come. 🙂
      THE BIG HEAT is wonderful! You can definitely catch it online. I was really spoiled in seeing both films in HD. They are even more appealing in flawless B&W.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. They sure were, Paul! Gloria was an ideal femme fatale who always seemed to have a lot of depth. As for Glenn, I also enjoyed him in Westerns. Like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, amongst others, he had no problems being convincing both in and out of the saddle. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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