Though canonised as one of the cinema’s greatest directors, Jean Renoir was preeminently a master of capturing energy. He depicts humanity rumbling with life in La Grand illusion (1937)’s prison camp, in the chic apartments and estates of La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939), and in various other locales. With a loose approach to directing actors, Renoir realised a style like Preston Sturges’, if more relaxed, and equalled the refinement of Orson Welles, while using multiple setups for extended tracking shots some time before the American “boy wonder”. Grasping to describe Renoir’s energy, André Bazin called it a “simultaneous expression of the greatest fantasy and the greatest realism” (1). Renoir’s onscreen kinesis, the product of his performers more than mobile framing, suggests a universe of vivid offscreen space. Even a more restrained film like Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932) concerns energy, if contained: an attempted rehabilitation of the “vagrant” of the title only restrains him. With the boat of his wedding party capsized at the end, he floats away from domesticity, happy to be free again.
The opportunity for Renoir to adapt Émile Zola’s 1890 novel La Bête humaine was ideal. Star and Renoir collaborator Jean Gabin had long wanted to play a train engineer, a topic also of interest to the filmmaker. The tale, largely scaled down by Renoir for his 1938 adaptation, gave him the chance to film Gabin on a real running train and provide the verity and grit necessary for this work of naturalism. (Aiming for realistic footage, Renoir had his nephew, Claude Renoir, operate a camera fixed aside the train; when the mount crashed into a tunnel, Claude just avoided being knocked off.) The opening scene, with the engine thundering beneath Gabin and his face gathering real soot, lives far from the studio-bound train sets by then familiar on the continent and across the pond. (Renoir actually uses one later in the film to alter his tone.) These sets imply that fate, and often fatalism, is at work. Before the full arrival of the automobile, the locomotive was a thing of efficiency and progress (as seen in John Ford’s Iron Horse, 1924), a technology that radically accelerated and expanded exploration and colonisation. But after the car, trains came to represent bounded direction. The new transportation embellished American Individualism, the ability to roam beyond railroad stops and through the twists and turns of the new community structure, suburbia.
Train scenes by Billy Wilder (in Double Indemnity, 1944) and Alfred Hitchcock (in several works) suggest that some encounters, often leading to death, cannot be avoided. In Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the wicked Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) arrives in a quiet California hamlet on a train ostentatiously billowing black smoke (2); his presence leads his alter ego, his niece, Charlie (Teresa Wright), to a call to action. Of course, Strangers on a Train (1951) makes the motif central, with Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) first meeting with the camera parallel to the train, opposed to the more common framing again its window. The depth of the shot suggesting that their ordeal will be considerable; it will end on, ironically, a vertiginous merry-go-round. Even Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), a real-time chamber piece, suggests the architecture of a train in its structure. With extended takes edited into continual action, the film reflects its title object but runs like numerous train cars towards an unsettling resolution, the first in which the down-home James Stewart is culpable (if indirectly) for murder.
Which is to say that La Bête humaine, as a proto film noir, played a key role in introducing this motif to the latter style. Though this isn’t to suggest that Renoir’s train is limited to such. The lives of his working class characters are tied to it, while in commitment to Zola’s naturalism, the railways reflect the tension that such a lifestyle creates. As engineer, Lantier (Gabin) operates his train like the captain of a ship, even referring to it as female and by name (La Lison, though it is a far cry from the spiritual). Lantier speaks something like romantic poetry when describing his attachment to the train, how he witnesses life on it and the change of the seasons. Even if calming to him, the train reflects anxiety in Lantier, who feels doomed by his alcoholic predecessors. The ride checks his physical attacks, which come like a “haze” (like the “White Heat” of James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett, for whom a train is an opportunity for robbery). Lison breaking down leads Lantier toward an encounter as a train passenger that, as in Hitchcock, will damn him. The train’s energy and verity sets up a fitting finale.
Peter Bogdanovich notes that suspense was not Renoir’s style, but the method of realising La Bête humaine was (3). In his most commercial film (according to Bogdanovich), Renoir doesn’t deliver an idiosyncratic study of humanity, as in La Grande illusion or La Règle du jeu, but vivid scenes to compliment an often-swift narrative. As a prewar crime film, La Bête humaine foreshadows the fascism that was approaching (unlike the wartime/postwar films that are blanketed by such darkness). The noir element is divided in La Bête humaine, with Lantier haunted by his past and a secondary character, Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), committing the film’s first murder (American noir entries of the 1940s would unify both in one character, while Fritz Lang’s 1954 adaptation of the Zola novel, Human Desire, maintains the duality). Jealous that his wife, Séverine (Simone Simon, a star in France at the time before appearing in America in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, 1942), was a mistress of her godfather, Grandmorin (Jacques Berlioz), Roubaud demands that she participate in his revenge. Reflecting an ironic triumph over the bourgeois, the murder of Grandmorin occurs on a studio train car set, after which Lantier meets Séverine. With passengers rounded up for interrogation afterward, the film borrows from the Agatha Christie-style whodunit, if only briefly and superficially: the scene’s goal is for Lantier to cover for Séverine, and seal the beginning of their relationship. As an early femme fatale, Séverine attracts a loner male’s interest after a murder, though she’ll lead him to another.
Lantier’s new love may supplant his attachment to the train. And yet we know that intimacy for him leads to violence. In an earlier scene, Lantier returns to his godmother while his train is repaired and then has an encounter with Flore (Blanchette Brunoy). An intimate scene by some railroad tracks leads to him putting his hands to her throat, alleviated only by shrieks of a passing train. This event shapes our perception of Lantier and Séverine. When his train is down, life seems to stop for him. He is a man best on the move, away from domesticity.
A loud, ex-convict, Cabuche (a delightful role played by Renoir himself), takes the blame, while the film opts for a romantic tone highlighting the affair of Lantier and Séverine. When with Roubaud, Séverine is burdened by the crime. She is freer with her lover. After admitting her love to Lantier, they take to bed as the camera moves outside, close-up on a container overflowing from rain. The camera moves away from what would be a consummation; Renoir’s method of suggesting adultery, with the use of rushing water (4), would be mimicked in Double Indemnity, Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), and many other films noir. During a later encounter, Séverine goes for a kittenish bite of Lantier’s lips. The moment, a likely improvisation unique to Renoir, shows the repressed aggression of Lantier now being returned to him.
Not content with a vague understanding of the crime, Lantier presses her for the details: whether she had assisted in the murder, before Roubaud blackmails her into staying with him. In a James M. Cain-style American noir, the adulterous couple would kill the nebbish husband. Here, the husband is thoroughly criminal and too capable of spousal abuse. As Séverine wants Roubaud dead, Lantier – a loner outside the “safety” of a family unit – seems the perfect choice for the deed. His approach is more aligned with poetic realism than American hardboiled crime. The former style has lowly beginnings that offer characters a chance for happiness, if only briefly. In the final moments, Renoir returns to the réelle du train with little comfort for his “human beast.”
- André Bazin, Jean Renoir, ed. François Truffaut, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1973, p. 28.
- François Truffaut, Hitchcock by François Truffaut, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1984, p. 154.
- “Interview with Peter Bogdanovich”, La Bête Humaine, DVD, Criterion Collection, New York, 2006.
- Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir”, Film Comment vol. 8, no.1, Spring 1972, p. 11.
La Bête humaine (1938 France 100 mins)
Prod Co: Paris Film Prod: Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim Dir: Jean Renoir Scr: Denise Leblond, Jean Renoir, based on the novel by Émile Zola Phot: Curt Courant Ed: Suzanne de Troeye, Marguerite Renoir Prod Des: Lourié Mus: Joseph Kosma
Cast: Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Fernand Ledoux, Blanchette Brunoy, Gérard Landry, Jenny Hélia