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Daily Dose of Darkness #2 The Arrival of a Train (The Opening Scene of La Bete Humaine)

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I missed the TCM screening - but having seen this opening I have to watch the entire film - and soon! The dynamic between the two men is brilliantly done and promises much for the rest of the movie. The momentum, not just the movement of the train but of the editing, leaves one breathless. This is 1938! Terrific camera angles almost making me duck my head as the train goes into tunnels and under bridges. Fantastic camerawork. I note that some people thought the music didn't work - but, not having seen the rest of the film - it worked for me not just because the tempo slowed as the train's speed fell off - but because it has such a triumphant feel to it that the sense of accomplishment in bringing this fire-eating monster safely to its destination is truly under-lined.

 

Like others though - I felt this opening sequence did not seem to herald a sense of 'noir' - it could just as easily have been footage from the final sequences of Herbert Smith's 1935 British documentary "Night Mail" - although rather better shot!

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My take on the opening. The train. The train is everything. Raw powerful sexual. Thrusting forward. Rushing without consciousness. The men function mechanically. The train minimizes and defines them. The oil and coal dust obscure their humanity. Live off the train will be sad, banal and or violent.

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The Age of Industry, which is what brought us cinema, is epitomized by the steam engine, economically and socially and, by mechanized factories and the rail road train; one keeps people at home, working, the other provides figurative as well as literal motion.  Train tracks symbolize movement, relentless, almost unstoppable movement—"Once you get on the train, and there's no getting off."  The heat of the engine—an inferno-like image that draws the viewer in, fearfully, begins the film, suggesting a self-destructive, consuming event, psychological or literal.  The train and its tracks also provide a symbol of rootlessness, disenfranchisement, and lack of integration into the environment.  The sounds and movement of the heavy, iron machine also suggest a generalized violence and harm should a living creature get too close. The sounds are so loud that they make normal human language impossible.

 

The train track also visually mimics a length of film (or the other way around)—a stretch of celluloid that makes the story possible and which isn't supposed to stop running until "it's all over."  Even in the more recent noir films of the 1940s and 50s, trains work for the director in the same way; later, of course, absent a train, we have those long highways that run up and down the West Coast with only cactus and rattlesnakes off-road.  Cactus, snakes, and hitchhikers—but no communities or congregations of people that would qualify as a social unit.  The train shots in La Bete Humaine call up the earlier naturalistic attempts at film by the Lumiere Brothers and look forward to later noir films that use train cars and tracks to isolate characters and build suspense, whether they are shooting through the dark or charging across the landscape in dayiight.  

 

The curvilinear  tracks here do set a different design element, though—the curves are emphasized, partly, perhaps, because the outside possibility of running off the tracks is always with the viewer, especially during the tunnel shots.  But those requisite verticals are there—fence-posts, road markers. Uncomfortably long periods of dark as the train shoots through those tunnels emphasize that.  What about the men in the cabin and their cigarettes, the purposeful way they work at levers also build tension—what is going to go wrong?  Is one of those cigarettes going to blow something up?  Will someone show up dead at the end of the one of those tunnel shots?  Will the whistle not work?  What are these men doing just before the trains takes the bridge? Will it make it over the bridge?  The long takes continually build tension (as long takes do).  Why not slow down at Le Havre?  We recognize the station, people are standing about (albeit in only one small group before the station, itself?  The train just keeps moving along, making deafening noise. A fork in the tracks holds our attention, but then the train continues—what about a track not taken"?  We are glad no one was derailed, and the rain continued to the right place.  But . . . . 

 

FInally:  Music.  The train has reached Le Havre—an arrival orchestrated by Joseph Kosma's score written in the Socialist aesthetic (one expects to see a mass of people waving a hammer and sickle at the far end of the platform). This film is derived from Emile Zola's work—a Naturalist writer who saw life as inexorable in the way it plays out, subject mostly to natural law, not unwitting human endeavors to constrain or regulate it.

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I think the close-up shots from right along side the wheels add to the feelings of adventure and danger.  The furnace opening is possibly a tone setter for the smouldering feelings running the length of the film.  These, for me at least, set up the mood and that this is a film tht will try people to their limits.

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I am amazed by the beauty and realism of the speeding train as it heads towards Le Havre and with the teamwork between the two conductors in La Bete Humaine.

 

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The opening scene of La Bete Humaine reminds me of the 1985 Canon film  Runaway Train starring Jon Voight and Eric Roberts.  In the film directed by Andre Konchalovsky two criminals escape a sadistic warden in a remote Alaskan prison only to find themselves trapped on a driverless train

hurtling at sickening speeds through the treacherous Alaskan wilderness. In Runaway Train, the

traint transcends physicalities and becomes a metaphor for the characters's desperate struggle to be free.  I felt the same emotions running through this scene from La Bete Humaine. 

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This opening scene is great. A few things stood out to me:

 

The camera work with the train was great for conveying the speed with which it was being propelled forward.  Where is the train going? We don't know because the train, for the most part at least, fills the frame, so we have do idea what the destination is.  We only have the vaguest sense of the landscape.  I really liked the use of the tunne -- everything goes dark, just long enough for the viewer to become uncomfortable with the darkness.

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My take on the opening. The train. The train is everything. Raw powerful sexual. Thrusting forward. Rushing without consciousness. The men function mechanically. The train minimizes and defines them. The oil and coal dust obscure their humanity. Live off the train will be sad, banal and or violent.

The train is sometimes viewed from the side, going forward. It's amazing how close the walls of tunnel are the train. It gives you a feeling of danger. The engineers are so matter of fact in their movement--mechanical. Steel, blood and bones combine to bring the train into Le Harve--safely. The celebratory music builds into a crescendo of successful man and machine arriving at their destination. How close they come to the walls of the tunnel. How dark the tunnel is. They make it through this time, but what awaits them?

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Film Noir avoids the "glossiness" of other Hollywood genres, and in its stead postulates a world of danger and darkness. The realism of this opening presents both in startling contrast. The speed of the train, the sweat and soot of the engineers, the camera's closeness to the tunnel walls all work together to project a sense of living on the edge, outside the mainstream.

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it feels like you are in the train!!! so fast just waiting in any moment to crush. Getting through the dark tunnel. I couldn't stop thinking the last train was derailed a couple of weeks ago.it was dark ,ugly and sad.

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The two working men have become so similar to the train, that they have learned to communicate in the same way as the train: verbal communication is impossible within this deafening environment. We are asked to sympathise with that. The coal and smoke make the men's appearances as greasy as the train's gear. To do their job well, they end up looking like the train, they simply become a part of it. It is a male dominated world of mechanical reproduction, and the train is almost like a sexual iron tool thanks to which men are able to dominate the rural landscape, enter tunnels and arrive at destination. I did not feel any anticipation for what is coming next, even if the noises, music and editing try to suggest it, perhaps because the arriving of the train to an empty station somehow reveals the fundamental human emptiness of this exaggerated masculine performance.

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The Age of Industry, which is what brought us cinema, is epitomized by the steam engine, economically and socially and, by mechanized factories and the rail road train; one keeps people at home, working, the other provides figurative as well as literal motion.  Train tracks symbolize movement, relentless, almost unstoppable movement—"Once you get on the train, and there's no getting off."  The heat of the engine—an inferno-like image that draws the viewer in, fearfully, begins the film, suggesting a self-destructive, consuming event, psychological or literal.  The train and its tracks also provide a symbol of rootlessness, disenfranchisement, and lack of integration into the environment.  The sounds and movement of the heavy, iron machine also suggest a generalized violence and harm should a living creature get too close. The sounds are so loud that they make normal human language impossible.

 

The train track also visually mimics a length of film (or the other way around)—a stretch of celluloid that makes the story possible and which isn't supposed to stop running until "it's all over."  Even in the more recent noir films of the 1940s and 50s, trains work for the director in the same way; later, of course, absent a train, we have those long highways that run up and down the West Coast with only cactus and rattlesnakes off-road.  Cactus, snakes, and hitchhikers—but no communities or congregations of people that would qualify as a social unit.  The train shots in La Bete Humaine call up the earlier naturalistic attempts at film by the Lumiere Brothers and look forward to later noir films that use train cars and tracks to isolate characters and build suspense, whether they are shooting through the dark or charging across the landscape in dayiight.  

 

The curvilinear  tracks here do set a different design element, though—the curves are emphasized, partly, perhaps, because the outside possibility of running off the tracks is always with the viewer, especially during the tunnel shots.  But those requisite verticals are there—fence-posts, road markers. Uncomfortably long periods of dark as the train shoots through those tunnels emphasize that.  What about the men in the cabin and their cigarettes, the purposeful way they work at levers also build tension—what is going to go wrong?  Is one of those cigarettes going to blow something up?  Will someone show up dead at the end of the one of those tunnel shots?  Will the whistle not work?  What are these men doing just before the trains takes the bridge? Will it make it over the bridge?  The long takes continually build tension (as long takes do).  Why not slow down at Le Havre?  We recognize the station, people are standing about (albeit in only one small group before the station, itself?  The train just keeps moving along, making deafening noise. A fork in the tracks holds our attention, but then the train continues—what about a track not taken"?  We are glad no one was derailed, and the rain continued to the right place.  But . . . . 

 

FInally:  Music.  The train has reached Le Havre—an arrival orchestrated by Joseph Kosma's score written in the Socialist aesthetic (one expects to see a mass of people waving a hammer and sickle at the far end of the platform). This film is derived from Emile Zola's work—a Naturalist writer who saw life as inexorable in the way it plays out, subject mostly to natural law, not unwitting human endeavors to constrain or regulate it.

Winonaww, your relating the train to the “Age of industry,” as you put it, is quite insightful, as are your associations of the locomotive with “figurative as well as literal motion,” and “mechanized factories” with “keeping people at home, working.”  Yet, at the same time, both the factory, (which really is a metaphor for the modern industrial city) and the train do the exact opposite of what they are ostensibly supposed to do: the train in fact concentrates and isolates people; the city makes them move, if not literally, figuratively or emotionally.

     To really capture this in this film, we have to pay attention to the scene in which Jacques Lantier, the engineer of the locomotive “Lison,” goes to visit his godmother who lives in the country, albeit next to the train tracks, where she can see Jacques go by many times in his locomotive.  This entire scene seems a bit out of place in the film, as it is the only venture away from the city that Jacques or anyone takes.  He has an extended family there and a young woman, Flore, who loves him, one who understands that he has some kind of illness and is willing to love him anyway.  On one level, the scene seems like a clumsy way of introducing a reference to some inherited mental illness that Jacques has, but this could have been handled in another way.

     Jean Renoir was too good of a cineaste to put in a clumsy, non-sequitur scene, so it had to have had some purpose: perhaps to compare a world were there was love, family, and nature so as to contrast it with the industrialized world in which Jacques lived.  In this natural, more rural world where there were people who loved him he suffered his illness, but his people were able to help him through and get better.  Even when he has one of his attacks and tries to strangle Flore, not why, he comes out of it and does not.  She tries to understand and wants to help.  Shees him and does not want to provoke this but to help him not kill.

     However, he will soon return to a world in which another woman, Séverine, who says she loves him–or says she does–tries to provoke him to murder, without realizing that she is playing with fire, one that could turn against her.

     It is telling that we see a modern man, Jacques, running a modern machine, a train.  Undoubtedly he makes decent money, probably more than he could living in the country.  He has some social position, as not everyone can operate a train.  He would be a man who should be going places.  But the fact that his godmother sees him, from her house in the country, from where she never seems to go anywhere, going back and forth on his train, shows that he is in reality, for all the movement and speed of the train, going nowhere.  A man who runs in circles may be moving, but he is not going anywhere.

      If we contrast the city, the train yard, in particular, with the countryside, we see the bleakness of Jacque’s situation: it is dirty, unnatural, lacking in anything beautiful, except Séverine.  Yet the city and its social classes have perverted her.  She has had a painful youth, undoubtely abused by not just her husband, but other men since she was young, all this happening in the city and the society that the city indicates.  Unlike Flore, who can take care of herself, she is is a victim of men and uses men to strike back.

     In any case, the contrast of city and country are important in this film and explain a lot about the existential angst that Jacques must have felt.  The city, the industrial world disorient, denature and destroy the soul and destroy any chance for a human life for Jacques or anyone in that world.  Thus they regress to being human beasts.

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In some senses the men had become the train similar in many ways to the transformation in one of Kafka's great works. The men become as mechanically indispensable with the train as the train with the tracks.  The identity of the men become melded with the train.  They are the train as the train is to them. Their being, their actions, their senses are as parallel as the tracks they ride on.

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The opening scene illustrates the intricate ballet between the engineer and brakeman required to bring the speeding passenger train into a busy station in a timely and accurate way. The engineer and brakeman work in a loud environment and their communication is all visual or tactile.

 

It is obvious the station is a busy place when the shots cut to external views of the train navigating into the train depot. We come to appreciate the skill of the train's operators and their coordination. It is obvious these guys are pros at what they do and have worked together for a long time.

 

While I have not watched the rest of the film, I am assuming that the engineer and brakeman are not the protagonists of the story, but players in a vignette. I was reminded of the opening sequence of the film "Once Upon a Time In The West" where we are given small glimpses into the lives of three different gunfighters who are milling about a train station, waiting for the protagonist to show up so they can kill him. We get a brief glimpse of each of these men who bide their time with unique activities in individual silence, only to be gunned down by the protagonist when he finally arrives on the train.  

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The perspective drew my attention not just to what was in front but more to the periphery, especially the people standing by. Their body language reinforced the tone of the clip and also made me feel more "present."

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The breathtaking opening of the speeding train and the two engineers casually going about their work is certainly exciting, but from a noir point of view, I guess one could say that the train is speeding toward something dark and foreboding.  The music though seems to convey more of a sense of excitement than something sinister.  Even though I have seen the whole movie, I'm just commenting on the opening scene alone.

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While the train appears to run  seamlessly on the tracks toward the next stop the engineers are constantly working and monitoring their progress reminding the viewer that there are machinations going on that are not necessarily evident at all times.

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Nice contrast between the upbeat music and the human-like screaming of the train's whistle as they pulled into the station.

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The opening scene was terrific. The train hurtling along the tracks- the viewer has no control over how or where he is delivered to his final destination. The two men seem to be in control but I question that. They continually check to make sure the tracks are safe ahead- hence a sense of danger ahead- yet they do nothing to slow the train down. There are also moments in the cabin when the viewer holds his breath- are they going to be able to pull that huge lever and slow things down?

 

The views and angles from the train all add to the sense of impending disaster. You can't see what's around the curve, what's across the bridge, what's in the tunnel- or if the tunnel will end. the train is flying too close to the edge of disaster. And you continually hear the scream of the whistle.

 

For me the telephone poles and such clicking past were like time hurling us toward a fate- we can't not arrive at our destination, nor can we slow down the speed at which we travel.

 

Then music is introduced- a clownish tune that reminded me of a cartoon. Are we happy now we arrived safely? For me it only exemplified the creepy feeling- that feeling that I really didn't want to be here. We see the three (or four) darkly dressed men watching the train go by. We see all those other trains, all the smoke and grit. It's dark, it's dirty. And after the breathless trip to get here, there are no people waiting to bpard the train.

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The opening scene of this movie provides more questions than answers. Thus the need to continue watching. I have seen the remake of this film and could not feel empathy for the characters.

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The train sequence in the opening adds a true realistc scene of the duties of the train engineer and the coalman. The certain darker touches are the showing of the train wheels and track and when the coalman has to pull that lever a the right moment. Also the certain attitude of the engineer and the coalman. it contributes to the film noir style by depicting that dark side. As an example when the conductor at the station treats one of the passengers so rudely and the when he goes home to his wife looks for sympathy of his actions since he has a feeling that there will be repercussions.

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The shots of coal being shovelling into the engine, combined with different shots of the speeding train and the engineers struggling to time everything perfectly - it all culminates to create tension. The tension builds as the scene goes on until the train arrives at Le Havre.

This idea of opening a film with a highly tense scene can be looked at as a contribution to film noir. It's a much darker way of opening a film that's not often seen except for in certain genres (suspense, thriller, etc.).

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The clip of the train sequence evokes a sense of urgency. The rushing sound of the train over the tracks, the screeching - almost screaming - of the whistle, the stark black and white contrasts of images felt dangerous. And yet, the two men working in tandem seemed confident, even relaxed.

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I have really enjoyed the viewpoints that many of you have offered.  However, my background leans more toward the psychology of the movie.  I always what to know why and what makes people tick.  La Bete Humaine leaves so many questions unanswered about the main characters.  Some of you have mentioned for the time period of the film, Jacques Lantier would have had some social standing to obtain the job of running the train.  That I had not considered!  What strikes me is that he contributes his illness to being from a family of alcoholics and that they have poisoned his blood.  That alludes to the possibility that others in his family suffered from the same illness.  He also says he does not drink because he knows what would happen if he did.  I think he means that if he drinks he would not be in control and more likely to give into his desire to kill.  What is not known is if the members of his family drank to self-medicate to drown out those feelings.  Also, for that time period, there probably was no cure for the illness that struck his family.

As for Séverine Roubaud, also is a victim, but of a different sort.  She was well educated by her godfather, but she was also from all implied comments, sexually molested and abused by Grandmorin.  Her behavior with men seems to be seductive, which for her draws men to her (as well as her beauty.)  She doles out her affection in small doses.  It is almost child-like, as if her emotional development ceased to develop at some point.  She married her husband for security, not love as she herself has come to understand, that she is not capable of really loving anyone.  She has left one trap with Grandmorin and entered another trap for herself with Roubaud.  Once he discovers the truth about Séverine, is determined to bind her to him, so she will never leave him.  He plans to kill the man who abused his wife, not out of love, but to control her.  In this aspect, Roubaud is terribly naive about relationships between men and women.  He does not understand that by killing Grandmorin and telling her why, he will drive her further away.  The look on her face when he says this is one of “fright and flight.”  She now knows she must do anything to escape.  When she meets Lantier, she is drawn to him because he represents escape.  He on the other hand as he states has loved her for some time.  He is looking for love and he does know he is putting her in danger of his illness.  However, I think he truly loves her.  But for Séverine, begins her own dangerous game.  She wants Lantier to kill her husband so she can be free.  He thinks to be with her, but she wants total freedom.  She is so intent on her desire for freedom, she does not recognize the “red flag” that Lantier exhibits.  He asks her how it felt when she watched her husband kill Grandmorin.  He wanted to hear every gory detail.  That is not normal!  He wants to hear about it because he thinks about his desire to kill all the time.  He is tormented about his desire.    But by hearing about it, he can relive those feelings.  However, when he cannot kill Roubaud, she withdraws from him.  She takes from him the one thing that he has always wanted, to be close to someone and to be loved.  In the end, he knows he as he describes, “a foggy feeling with a desire he cannot control” is descending upon him.  He has felt it often and now it is unleashed and he kills her. 

Now I have more questions!  Does he only want to kill women?  If so who does he kill in his mind over and over?  Since he comes from a family who suffer from mental illness, what did he suffer and see as a child?  And what about Séverine?  Was she really Grandmorin’s daughter as her husband implied?  Why did she do the favor of speaking with her godfather, when she knew what he would want as payment?  Was she suffering as victims do when they are held hostage?  And if the man they arrested for Grandmorin’s murder knew about his reputation for young girls, why didn’t her husband know. 

There is no doubt in my mind that both Séverine and Lantier are victims of their past!  Were they destined to end tragically?  In Noir, of course.  Darkness followed them both and it was bound to engulf them at some point.  Lantier cannot understand why they have not come to arrest him, so he kills himself for the terrible act he has committed.  I can only surmise that since her husband found her, probably with her godfather’s watch and wallet in his hand, he was arrested for her murder.

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