Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) is home from the Korean War and returning to his old job, which he left over a couple of years ago, as a train driver. It's one he enjoys because he can relax into watching the scenery go by, the company - his co-driver Alex Simmons (Edgar Buchanan) is so good they don't even need to converse with each other, and the camaraderie between him and his co-workers is valuable to him. Simmons has allowed him back to rent the room in his home, and his wife Diane DeLaire) is delighted to see him, as is now-grown daughter Ellen (Kathleen Case), but there is someone else who will catch his eye, the wife of one of the railwaymen at the depot...
She being Vicki Buckley, played in expert femme fatale mode by Gloria Grahame in her second role for director Fritz Lang after her career-defining performance in The Big Heat. The whole project was something of a gamble, at least critically, for it was a remake of La Bete Humaine, the Jean Renoir adaptation of the celebrated Emile Zola novel that had been so respected back on the eve of World War II. Banking on the notion that only a select few Americans would have seen that first version, this was a loose redo of the Renoir material, the biggest difference being that the hero was not an antihero anymore, and his sexual perversity was channelled into the two villains' personalities.
One of those is a more obvious wrong 'un than the other, as Broderick Crawford played Vicki's abusive husband Carl, who initially comes across to Jeff as a stand-up guy, but no sooner has that happened than Jeff has witnessed some funny business going on in a train corridor. When he realises that Carl has murdered their boss for his money, or a wad of it anyway, Jeff starts to feel like the potential knight in shining armour who can spirit Vicki away from all this, not quite twigging, or not quite accepting, that she may be as complicit in the attack as her husband was. Nevertheless, he has a chance to spill the beans at the inquest and does not, leaving the killing unsolved.
All the while this is happening, some film noir clichés were in effect; Ellen is the nice girl who Jeff should be listening to and romancing, but Vicki is too irresistible. That was all in Grahame's performance and her way with inveigling her path into both his and the audience's sexual interest, though it had to be said this was somewhat one-sided as Jeff remained a dullard for most of the plot, until he wakes up near the end of the film and is given his reward, while Vicki gets her just desserts. By that point we don't know what to believe about her: is she a compulsive liar and manipulator who is determined to get ahead by using and crushing men, or is she as much a victim herself and has desperation driven her to extreme actions which are ultimately forgivable? Not by this movie, they ain't!
Lang was famously a fatalist and keeps returning to the image of trains propelled along the tracks with no way of deviating from their destination, therefore if you were on the journey to Hell at the beginning of one of his films, chances are that it's effectively written in the stars and that was it. Therefore it would have been more interesting, more dramatically potent, had Jeff been unable to "jump the tracks", if you like, and there is a mood of the brave new post-war world clawing its way out of the desolation of the previous decade yet finding it too hard to shake off the evils that both had been witnessed and committed, like a recurrent infection that will eventually kill you. There was more than a touch of misogyny in the concept that this infection was a woman, particularly in light of Vicki's fate, that the presence of the wholesome Ellen did not entirely nullify, but if anyone stole the show it was Grahame, such a curious, distinctive presence when offered the right roles, and here magnetic in her ambiguity that was the best reason to watch. Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof.
[Eureka's Blu-ray offers a restored print, a chat from critic Tony Rayns and the trailer.]
Tyrannical, monocle-sporting, Austrian-born director who first became established in Germany, significantly due to his second wife Thea von Harbou who wrote many of his scripts for him including famous silents Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Niebelungen, revolutionary sci-fi Metropolis, Spione and Lang's first sound effort, the celebrated M (which catapulted Peter Lorre to fame).
He had caught the interest of the Nazis by this time, so after another couple of Dr Mabuse films he decided to flee the country rather than work for them (von Harbou stayed behind), and arrived in America. There he was quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers to create a string of memorable thrillers, such as Fury, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, and the World War II-themed Hangmen Also Die, which fed into a talent for film noir he took advantage of in the forties. Some of these were Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and Secret Behind the Door, noirish Western Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. After the fifties and one final Mabuse film, Lang had difficulty getting work due to his bad-tempered reputation and increasing blindness, but stayed a personality in the movie world right up to his death.