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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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The style of the opening shot definitely pulls the viewer in; the viewer feels as if he/she is riding on the train and a part of things. The documentary style makes me feel slightly claustrophobic- like I'm suffering from sensory overload. 

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I haven’t seen this entire film, and I’m only familiar with it from the TCM description on-line for it, so I’m just going to concentrate on the 4 minutes of film I’ve watched, and try to discuss the questions Professor Edwards asked at the end of the page.

I think the fact that the driver and brakeman’s realistic actions during the opening scene add a note of authenticity to the opening of the film, and you’ll believe that the central character (who I assume is one of these two characters – with the brakeman being my guess) really is what he says he is while the plot of the movie unfolds. It makes you want to believe him in what he says and does. And that he is a proficient person, knowing what to do and when to do it (although, if he IS the brakeman, it seems the Engineer has to prompt him at times with his whistle, so he also may be a bit forgetful, or at least loses track of what always needs to be done next).

I think the overwhelming thing during this clip that would add a “darker touch” to the opening is the sound of the train itself, which is so overwhelming that the two men cannot even talk. They need to communicate via whistles and hand signals to get across their meaning. The speed of the train, which can be seen in the point of view shots when the men look outside of the train at what is coming towards them gives you a sense of danger, and when they enter the tunnel, and everything outside goes black, the two men have to operate from a place which is fully lit from the outside to a place that’s temporarily only lit by a light that’s inside the engine compartment. Finally, the shots used when they are approaching the train station makes it look like a real station, and one that isn’t at the peak of efficiency, particularly from the shot of the multiple train engines that are all being fixed at the one location, shown in the quick shot as they pass by, giving you the feeling that this isn’t a train station that’s “new and shiny”, and will most likely have some people on the lower echelons of humanity populating it.

I think some of the elements that put this clip into the film noir style, first and most importantly, would be the setting. The scene was obviously filmed on an actual train, and the scenery that they pass is all there to give you a sense of setting, specifically, on a train track heading towards a train station (which can hardly be argues since ALL trains eventually head into train stations!). While the films that were made when this one were made were almost universally black and white, the film utilizes some high contrast elements, especially when they enter and leave the tunnel, with shadows involved when they even go through short overhands and when they start to enter the train station. It uses actual signs by the side of the track to let you know that this station is La Havre station without having to resort to a location title, and the use of sound is also very realistic, with the train engine being the only thing that can be heard until the musical score starts to come in, just as they start to arrive at the station, which gives you a feeling of “OK, now that the train is stopping, the story is just really getting started” even though you already have quite a few elements already identified, including what the hero does for a living, and the fact that he’s good at it, Where the entire picture is probably going to take place (France) and where the next scene, which will probably set the story into motion (pun partially intended) is going to take place, that being La Havre Train Station.

And I can also say that this opening scene does make me more interested in seeing the movie then I felt before. The opening gives you a feeling of “what are these men going towards” in an interesting way, and it makes me wonder that and want to know the answer.

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Again, playing "catch up."  I watched a good chunk of this movie the morning it was on.  Somehow I missed the ending (had to go to work).  Anyway, I ended up making notes as I watched the first 4 minutes.  Here's what I saw:  fire, heat, tight shots (the train wheels), the long dark tunnel, two trains at just such an angle as they could seem about to collide, another shot where you could get your head knocked off if you leaned too far out. The bridge - perspective - speeding to the vanishing point.  Not to be too paranoid about it, but a person suffering from acute anxiety would feel fear and see death all around.  It's an absorbing sequence, and draws you in.  Someone mentioned the dark/light contrasts and I agree.  I know I'm going to have to revisit this movie and see the ending.  One would expect some sort of tie-in to the end (like Gabo's Anna Karenina and the train).

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The simularities of La bete mécanique controlled by  La bete humaine

C'est vrai.  But who serves whom?  Does the machine serving man better mankind?  Or does mankind end up being a slave to the machine?  That is why I believe that the scene showing a momentary contrast and respite from the city and railyard is crucial in understanding Jacques's disassociation and illness.  So does modern society and industrialization cause humans to devolve to a lower state?  We have to remember one of the main ideas behind civilization, and found rooted in religion and philosophy, is that humans are not animals.  We come from animals, but aspire to heaven.  So, ironically, does civilization destroy us instead of help us to transcend our human condition?

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This opening sequence is beautifully photographed and edited, drawing me into the film.  The train hurtling forward takes us into a plot driven by lust, jealousy and murder.  Yes, I recorded and watched the entire film.  The classic noir plot of a woman driving men to desperate acts is here, told by the great director Jean Renoir.

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I like the way the opening scenes with the train, bridge, tunnel, etc are pretty much repeated at the movie just before Jacques suicide.

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The images in the opening scenes are vague at first, a dark place with fire resolves into a firebox on a train. The train is racing along, whistle screaming toward something we can't see, scenery flashes past only half seen. Then the train races into darkness as it enters a tunnel, it emerges to be racing toward an oncoming train which is fortunately on another track. Tracks merge and diverge and things we don't understand are happening, all very fast. I creates a feeling of unease, once more something is happening, but we are not sure what it is, the characters are racing toward an unknown and possibly dangerous future.

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This opening is gritty, fast, and uncomfortable. There's no romance that's usually associated with train travel in film. Noir always has a sense of unease, and the lack of smoothness in this section fits the bill. It also sets the film up with an allegory of ambition and strength.

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Unlike 'M', I wasn't nervous at all. Nothing dark, not even going through the tunnel. Instead I was caught up with the noise, how loud it was. How fast we were passing things and how both men understood each other and knowing what to do (experienced). One man checked the time that represents schedule to me and also by the time I started paying attention to the music and the bending I felt i was on a ride. Seeing the other trains, smoke and couple men (well I think they're men) I get a sense of busyness and I arrived with curiosity.

I found myself much more nervous here than with M. I think it was because of the power of the images here. It seemed like there was no stopping it - this train had an unstoppable forward motion. I also was immediately drawn into the cinematography. Seeing the point of view of the train, the mostly black shot as it sped through the tunnel and back towards the light. Although I don't have TCM, I am going to find a way to see this film!

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The opening grabs the viewer immediately and doesn’t let go.  It sets up a feeling of anticipation right away.  I loved how the camera was mounted outside the train, so it really draws the viewer in as if we too are riding on the train with the engineers, really engaging us right away. I think this film’s contribution to the film noir is that of bringing the viewer immediately into the scene, so that we are immediately invested. When the darkness of the tunnel occurred, I found myself holding my breath, even dreading what was going to happen next and wondering what we would see on the other side (would one or both of the engineers be gone, would some altercation have occurred between the two, would something or somebody have joined them in the cab while in the tunnel, etc.)  Yet when they emerged from the tunnel nothing had happened, so strangely I felt this immense relief. One additional observation, near the end of the segment/opening, the music startled me when it began.  I found it strangely at odds with the action we’d just seen on the train.  Where the rushing train and the interactions of the engineers had set such a serious and intense tone, the music seemed kind of bouncy and cheerful which did not seem to fit at all. Unsettling.  

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I haven't read any of the other comments about "La Bete Humaine" yet. I didn't want to be influenced by anybody else's observations. I began watching this film last night and am about half of the way through. I was impressed with the speed and sound of the train barreling to its destination. It was almost dizzying. I have a tiny TV, so these sensations must be heightened when seeing it on the big screen. We don't know where the train is going yet. The humans guiding it appear to be in control and their work seems second nature to them. I couldn't help but feel that they looked vulnerable somehow, thinking that they were in control of this hurtling vessel and that nothing would happen along the way. They didn't appear to realize that at any time, the train could jump its tracks or crash. It even looks as though the train will collide head on with another fast locomotive, yet it whizzes right by it. Later, the screen goes black for a few seconds. Then, light begins to show, eventually expanding into brightness. When the train reaches the station, the music turns triumphant and even jubilantly playful. "Here we are!"

 

The opening scene is almost a formula for film noir, filled with contrasts. Contrasting darks and lights, flashes of chaos and calm, sounds ominous and reassuring. Like most noir characters, the humans in this opening scene feel that they are in control of their destinies, but they will eventually encounter unexpected bouts of bad luck or harm as they try to navigate their trips in life, which is always full of tricks. Tough characters crack when their weaknesses are exposed to the light, or they are swallowed up by the inevitable powers of life and fate. They may survive to reach their destinations or they may not.

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The opening of La Bete Humaine is energetic, fast-paced, furious.  The movement of the train builds anxiety and fear in the viewer who does not know where he or she is going and does not feel in control of the speed of this iron giant or the destination.  The viewer is taken on a "ride" whether he or she likes it or not.  It is disturbing to see a train stop without any people waiting for its arrival.  The engineers operating the train seem to strain at trying to master this beast.  This opening is important to film noir since it motivates the viewer to enter into the world with that "willing suspension of disbelief" that Samuel Tyalor Coleridge talked about when reading literature.  We as film viewers must be willing to let go of our doubts, fears, and beliefs to truly experience the world of the film.

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I mainly get a sense of, what at the time, would be more realism in depiction. There are several shots which are fairly shaky and give the viewer a sense of being on an actual train, not on a set piece. The two actors seem to convey with their actions and their gestural communication that they really are doing a job, really are driving the engine. I can't tell as a layperson if these men are actors or simply men who did this job for a living. Then of course there is the darkness. The train plunges into the dark tunnel, casting the audience into the dark, until we see a crescent of light growing in the corner. Then we are brought back into the light to see another train coming towards us. Tension is increased as the front of "our" train comes visually into contact with the train coming towards us. As we approach the station the muic swells and continues to build dramatic tension. There is a slight feeling of isolation to the opening. We only see the two men. Why is the station they arrive at empty? The train can also be a symbol of technology/science/progress and shows human influence in the environment, while still making the men driving the engine seem rather small when compared to the engine itself.

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The intense speed of the train made me question what we can and cannot control in this world.  The train seemed right on the edge of being out of control or perhaps man's ability to control it.  The actions of the engineers were deliberate and exact.   I have not seen the movie yet, but based on the opening, I will be looking for the choices these individuals will be making to attempt to control the world around them and the actions they take that set things into motion (metaphorically represented by the train).  Will  their actions create a momentum that even they cannot stop?

 

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I found the opening shot of the firebox interesting...the scorching flames, one of the men feeding the flame, the sweat and the grime...the men working together, seemingly, to keep the train speeding along while trying to maintain a modicum of control over the beastly thing.

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Dose#2, La Bete Humaine.

 

Unfortunately, I was unable to view the movie (traveling on a plane, ironically). However, the comments I have read bring to mind the use of trains (and more modern conveyances) to impart a sense of powerlessness of the travelers to influence the transportation from Point A to Point B. The general sense of emotion seems to be independent of the actual situation, in that individuals will either be calm or anxious (whether it is a train or plane or ship) depending on their own perspective of the experience itself.

 

Many films have used the setting of trains to convey various feelings of calm or apprehension. For example, Strangers on a Train obviously involves the plotting of a "perfect" double murder. The somewhat spoofy remake of Throw Momma from the Train also involves the double murder plot, with a somewhat comedic undertone. Even the train scene leaving Paris (Casablanca) presents the viewer with diverse emotions (sadness for Rick losing Ilsa, concern of departing prior to the Nazis entering Paris, etc.).

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Both engine and engineers move precisely in a mechanistic fashion. The train's route and the men's actions underscore the seeming surety that the end result will be the same as always. But the train's high speed coupled with the perceived recklessnees of many of the men's actions is unsettling to audience members who know instinctively that normal routine and its ends can be drastically altered by changing/unforeseen alignments of factors. It is best to remember both that the trickster god has a habit of interfering in any situation that takes his fancy, and that one should not draw the trickster god's attention to oneself. 

 

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I think the film's realistic depiction of a train makes the viewers feel as if we are also working along side the men. I felt slight tension between the two workers to successfully operate the train in order to reach their destination; a bit stressful, yet also adventurous. The suspense made me think, Where is this train headed and why? Who really are these men, and what is their significance to the rest of the film?

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The sun may be shining.  The mountains and countryside may be peaceful.  But there is no sign of serenity in this opening scene what with the intense speed of the train, the grit and grime of the men and the train itself, and most importantly for me the sound.  It never lets up and grows more intense and then subsides.  Even in this short segment, I just wanted it to stop.  At times it was like finger nails rubbing against the chalk board.  It just seemed to me that the tone was set for this film.  I believe (without having seen it) that this film has what it takes to be labeled Film Noir.

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1. What does the film's realistic depiction of a train add to this opening?


 


The depiction is a stabilizing, or lulling, factor -- we all know most train rides are safe, but we also hear of catastrophes that can occur any time. 


It keeps us on an even keel because even when the camera views the tracks from wheel level, and when curves appear along the drive, and when the engineer and conductor exchange dialogue with directions, the road always balances and the rails are stable, under the train to steady the viewer, the riders, and the safe normalcy doesn't ever startle the workers standing by tracks. 


Yet, we all know a random mistake or a split-second distraction can create a crash that turns the passengers' worlds upside-down.


 


2. What are some of the specific shots, sounds, or techniques that add "darker touches" to this opening scene?


 


The view from below, track-level almost might symbolize the underside of humanity (bete humaine).


The clash of loud sounds pull us away from rational thoughts; the disharmony of clangs, roars, whistles, engines, iron grates, fire burning, tunnel-and-bridge noises all combine to startle us, to yank us into this immediacy of the train's environment. 


Musical harmony enters after 3 or 4 minutes but by them we cannot escape the push/pull (the thrust and jerking) of "the human beast."


 


3. In what ways can the opening of La Bete Humaine be considered an important contribution to the film noir style?


 


A false sense of routine, care, and security as if they cast a shield of protection around viewer and actor. The set-up of typical actions done daily which become, in noir, the BC (before the crisis) contrasted with the AC (after the life-shattering crisis). It shows the importance of initial mood.

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Sounds: the locomotive wails as a needy child, and makes so much noise the engineers have created their own secret language-much the way gangsters create a shorthand. The consistent, insistent, and repeating cacophony, crass in contrast to the music.

 

Tunnels: light to dark, and back again, the noir example of the camera staying through the entirety of the dark tunnel, allows the viewer to question, what's next? Into the tunnel straight on, coming out directly into a curve signifies veering away fro the norm.

 

Train track: where it leads, they must follow. There are no choices in the inevitable.

 

Class distinction: Skilled engineers are responsible for every life, yet they carry behind them passengers who would not probably see them as more than second class, nor invite them to converse, the have nots in service of the haves --- this is very much like M, where the women do laundry for the more affluent.

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The gritty and fast-paced opening sequence foreshadows something unpleasant, almost evil. Add the crescendo of music at the end and you feel a heighten sense of anticipation. 

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I felt there was a mixture of daily-life triviality and risk at the same time in the ways the two engineers interact. You can see they've done this a hundred times, but at the same time, they know there's a lot of risk involved. This is more noticeable in the scene where they have to pull that chain and when they are both looking out the sides of the train towards the end.

 

Also, the loud sounds, the clangs and bangs, evokes a certain sense of desperation and quick-thinking. No time to sit around and relax. It's all action.

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To me, the use of the train generates a kind of nervous energy. They have so much momentum--and it always calls to mind a warning I read about crossing train tracks: "If the person driving the train can see you, it's already to late for them to stop."

 

One of the things about noir that is so compelling is the way that certain characters end up barrelling toward their own doom, as if they are building their own fatal momentum (I'm thinking especially of characters like those in Double Indemnity). The men are controlling the train, yes, but there is a finite limit to the control that they can exert.

 

My favorite moment was when they were going through the tunnel. At first, I couldn't make sense of the abstract shape floating on the screen, and then I realized it was the other side of the tunnel. It was an interesting moment of disorientation.

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The opening scene: Engine, engineers, industry, stark landscape all working together in a utilitarian manner leading them to their ultimate destination to la havre or "the haven;" a stark station devoid of human beings except for the two workers.

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