For the first seven minutes of La Bete Humaine we're in the open cab of a huge steam engine barreling down the tracks at 60 miles an hour from Le Havre to Paris. The only sounds are the roar of the wind and the wheels on the rails. One crew member is hurling shovels-full of coal into the fire box. The other is checking the gauges, pulling a lever, sticking his head out the side to look ahead. The engineer is dressed in dirty coveralls, a greasy cloth cap on his head, protective goggles pushed up on his forehead. The wind rushes over him. We can't hear a thing because of the noise. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of him framed for a moment against the sky. The engineer is Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin). Controlling that huge engine and driving it at speed is what has given his life any meaning. Some film critics say this was one of the movies the early noir directors in the Forties must have seen. Perhaps, but this film transcends the genre.
Lantier is a taciturn working man, not disliked but lonely. He suffers spells of headaches, fever, of "waves of grief," of violent seizures he blames on the alcoholism of his parents. He wears the sadness of life like a cloak on his shoulders. One night, as a passenger on the train returning to Le Havre, he sees the Le Havre station master, Roubard (Fernand Ledoux), and his wife, Severine (Simone Simon), on board. Roubard, jealous of his younger wife, has just killed a man in the man's train compartment. Lantier, looking at Severine, provides a statement that avoids implicating either her or her husband, but then fatefully finds himself falling in love with her. And Severine? "I am incapable of loving anyone," she tells Lantier. But Lantier moves into a passionate affair with her, a relationship which Lantier needs and which Severine uses. Severine realizes how Lantier might be used to solve the problem of her husband's existence. From there, the movie moves ahead with all the power of Lantier's steam engine and with all the inevitability of death. There is no redemption, no absolution for anyone. And at the end, what is Lantier's epitaph? Just "Poor guy."
La Bete Humaine is a great example of Jean Renoir's ability to tell a story which focuses on the humanity of the characters while not flinching from their circumstances or the results of their actions. The style of the movie is integral to its effect. The railway scenes all were shot on location. The grime of the workingmen's lives is everywhere. For all the scenes of the train on the move, only one brief back-screen projection shot was used, at the end of the movie for obvious reasons. Renoir and his cameraman, his nephew Claude Renoir, set cameras on the train focused on the engine cab, or attached to the side of the engine. The train powers its way over the tracks, through tunnels and across bridges. The sound track was recorded right there. Renoir also used great imagery. That shot of Gabin with the goggles on his forehead framed against the sky is almost iconic. A stabbing which takes several minutes is inter-cut with scenes of a dance for the trainmen and a man on stage singing a popular music hall song. The first consummation of the relationship between Lantier and Severine takes place in a hard rainstorm, and the camera cuts away to a downspout gushing water into a barrel, fading out and back to the water slowly stopping in the morning, then moving to a doorway to show two pairs of feet in shoes step away from the small shack. I have to think that Hitchcock would have envied that scene, although Renoir plays it matter-of-factly, without the hint of a smirk.
Gabin, for me, is probably the best film actor. He doesn't show a lot of emotion; his face can sometimes barely move. He's not a particularly handsome man. Even so, he can move from sad longing to fearful emotional distress in seconds. He doesn't seem to look much different when Lantier is happy, looking forward to meeting Severine, to when he looks distressed but determined, when he intends to do what Severine wants him to do. But there is no doubt what Lantier is feeling.
This is a terrific, tough, sad film well worth owning. The Criterion DVD looks excellent. The extras include an introduction by Renoir, a useful interview with Peter Bogdanovitch and a fascinating short film made in 1957 showing Renoir directing Simone Simon in a scene from La Bete Humaine. Included in the case is a substantial booklet which includes three articles about Renoir and this movie.