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Human Desire was based on La Bête Humaine by Émile Zola, which was first adapted for the screen by Jean Renoir.
Given the acclaim of the French film, producers were anxious for an Americanized version. However, they wanted the tone to be, well, toned down. According to director Fritz Lang, they told him, “We need a young, clean-cut American.”
Lang originally wanted Peter Lorre and Rita Hayworth to be his stars. However, Lorre turned him down, after having a bad experience with him on M. Hayworth also passed due to her busy personal life after being divorced and remarried in the same year.
The success of Clash By Night started talks of reuniting Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas to take the leads. But Stanwyck wasn't interested.
Olivia de Havilland was tempted to accept the lead with the condition that she could pick her leading man. She suggested Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Robert Mitchum.
In the end, the studio decided to reteam Lang with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. The trio had found success with The Big Heat, which grossed approximately $2 million (read about The Big Heat here).
Originally entitled The Human Beast (a direct translation of the book’s title), Human Desire began filming in December of 1953.
“I've always asked myself why it was called Human Desire. What other type of desire is there?” Lang joked.
While the American adaption tamed the original source material, the plot still caused trouble.
“You couldn't imagine the difficulties that we had in finding a rail line that would authorize takes under the pretext that we would show a murder,” Lang said. “Could you believe that the authorities for the Santa Fe Railroad would be very happy to see a film with a murder on one of their trains?”
Eventually, a railroad in Canada gave them permission, and off they went. Ford enjoying shooting on the train. His father had been an engineer and taught him how to work the machine.
While the movie didn’t perform as well as The Big Heat, it still proves to be an effective film noir. It was also the last film that Glenn Ford was obligated to do with Columbia under his old contract. His continued success in the film noir genre helped him negotiate a new contract – this time, as a star.