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If You Knew What I Lived Through | Gloria Grahame in Human Desire

Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame first appear in The Big Heat, where Ford plays Bannion, a cop who takes on a powerful crime syndicate. He’s a good guy — infallible moral code, making honorable decisions at every turn.

Meanwhile, Grahame is Debby Marsh, Lee Marvin’s moll, unreliable until Marvin’s character, Vince Stone, disfigures her by throwing coffee in her face. Marsh helps Bannion by avenging his wife’s murder and injuring Stone. But sadly, she’s mortally wounded and dies at the end.

Ford’s impeccable image from The Big Heat sticks with him in Lang’s version of Human Desire. His character, Jeff Warren, compromises his noble ambitions by falling for a married woman. But the character feels unrealized and falls a little flat.
And like The Big Heat, it’s the women that sizzle on the screen, and Grahame’s character, Vicki Buckley, is the one who truly knows the dangers of Human Desire.
When we first meet Vicki, she’s in the bedroom, her comely leg stretched in the air, playing a slinky jazz record and dripping sensuality.

Carl Buckley, her older husband, is distraught because he lost his job at the railyard and begs Vicki to help him. Somewhere along the way, she’s mentioned that she knows John Owens, a shipping tycoon, and Carl believes that Owens can help him get his job back.

Vicki is hesitant and troubled by Carl’s request. It’s easy to see that whatever was between Vicki and Owens was more than a casual acquaintance. However, she relents and agrees to see Owens.
But why? Is it devotion to her husband or something else that persuades Vicki to ask Owens for a favor? Vicki knows that her request will have a price, so why does she agree to do it?
Perhaps it’s to help Carl and to keep life status quo, but maybe she wants to prove she has some power over her husband — she can do something that he can’t.

When she returns from seeing Owens, she has good news — Carl got his job back. But she’s visibly flustered and doesn’t want to be touched, signaling to Carl that something has happened, and he doesn’t like it.
But honestly, Carl, what did you think would happen?
Carl could have made a na├»ve assumption that Owens was a father-figure to Vicki since her mother worked as a maid in Owens’ home. But more than likely, he was so agitated about losing his job, his sense of identity, that he didn’t care what it took to get it back.
Carl isn’t a man that thinks things through.
When Carl faces the naked truth, he’s so enraged that he beats Vicki and makes her write a letter to Owens saying that she would meet him on a train to Chicago. That night, Carl forces Vicki to barge into Owen’s compartment, where Carl murders Owens with a knife.

Carl peers into the corridor and notices someone in the vestibule. He orders a stunned Vicki, motionless and trying to process what just happened, to get rid of the guy — to do whatever it takes.

Vicki slips into the hall, checks her lipstick, and enters the vestibule where Jeff Warren is smoking. After some small talk, they head toward the club car for a drink, but Warren suddenly remembers the club car is closed and leads her into a compartment. It only takes a minute for “good-guy” Warren to make a pass at Vicki, and she flees out of the room.

Later, Warren meets Mr. and Mrs. Carl Buckley in the railyard. And after Owens’ body is discovered, Warren testifies at a murder inquest that the passenger he saw in the train car wasn’t present, even though Vicki is in the courtroom.
Why does Warren protect Vicki? Was he so enraptured during their brief encounter that he would lie on the stand?
Vicki knows a mark when she sees one. As soon as Warren perjures himself in court, she knows she’s got him. It’s easy for her to earn his sympathy with her story of abuse and the bruises to prove it.

But she’s not entirely truthful. She’s not sure she can ask Warren to do what needs to be done.

Because when Carl burned the evidence from Owens’ murder, he kept Vicki’s letter to bind her to him. And to get the letter, she’ll need to tell Warren that she was there when Carl murdered Owens. That she unknowingly led him to his death.

Whether or not Vicki loves Warren is unclear. She needs him and knows she can manipulate him, yet she doesn’t know how far she can take it.

When Carl loses his job again and announces they’re moving, Vicki acts fast. And much like Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice, she plants a lethal seed and lets it germinate.

However, her plan doesn’t come to full fruition. When faced with killing a pathetic drunk, Warren chooses to lift Vicki’s letter from Carl’s pocket and let the guy live.

He gives Vicki the letter and tells her they’re through. Vicki begs him not to leave, promising him she’ll go to the police and come clean about everything, but Warren has become disgusted with himself and what she has asked him to do.
He abandons her, and his sudden jolt of morality costs Vicki her life.
On Vicki’s last train ride, Carl crashes into her compartment — begs her forgiveness, offers to destroy the letter. But it’s too late, and Vicki relishes telling Carl how stupid he is, how he never really knew her.

Unlike Owens, who knew that her machinations were a waste of time, Carl foolishly believed that he could have Vicki. And if he couldn’t, no one could.
Human Desire is told through a male lens, but Grahame’s outstanding performance cuts through the machismo and illustrates a woman’s struggle in a man’s world.
Sure, she’s an ambiguous character, but she has reason to be. From an early age, Vicki Buckley has been put in impossible situations. And despite her best attempts to use them to her advantage, her efforts backfire.

Vicki believed Jeff Warren was different — he protected her on the stand, pledged his love for her, and was willing to take her away. Yet when she asks for more, he balks, proving he’s not the man she thought he was, either.
Sadly, none of them are.


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