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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 loved this opening scene. Starting a film with a four minute scene of a train traveling with zero dialogue is difficult to accomplish. But I found myself wondering where the train was going, what these men are doing, and how dirty it is what they're doing. Maybe that's why it is a contribution to film noir (I haven't seen the film, so I can't comment on anything more than the opening scene), it's a mystery, it's darkly lit, and it's very grimey. The sounds of the train are unpleasant, but then the music swelled in and I felt a sense of excitement, furthering the mystery (the music seems to almost conflict with the heavy and dark images). 

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While several people have stated that the opening scene of La Bete Humaine does not demonstrate elements of film noir, I would like to point out the visual of the "wet streets" (or, in this case, the "wet train tracks") that appears to be a staple in most films noir. There's also the sense that the two workers believe themselves to be in complete control, yet one also feels the lack of control through the speed of the train as well as through the way in which the camera is quickly jumping from one image to the next. I believe this to be another characteristic of noir: Things just happen--no one is ever truly in control....

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I quite enjoyed this opening scene. The use of shadows was very useful. I loved the use of the contrast of dark and light when the train is completely consumed by darkness in the tunnel and the light at the end of the tunnel gradually appears. The rapid pace at which the film begins automatically grabs the viewer's attention. Many times the train appears to be going too fast with little chance to gain control should something go wrong. 

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While several people have stated that the opening scene of La Bete Humaine does not demonstrate elements of film noir, I would like to point out the visual of the "wet streets" (or, in this case, the "wet train tracks") that appears to be a staple in most films noir. There's also the sense that the two workers believe themselves to be in complete control, yet one also feels the lack of control through the speed of the train as well as through the way in which the camera is quickly jumping from one image to the next. I believe this to be another characteristic of noir: Things just happen--no one is ever truly in control....

 

Oh! We might have a slight disagreement. Or maybe a disagreement of semantics. I think it's true that the characters in a noir film are rarely in control, despite what they believe, but I also believe nothing in a noir film 'just happens.' To me the defining trait of noir is it's fatalism, it's concept that the characters are being propelled through the story and towards whatever doom waits for them, unavoidable. In that regard, the opening shots are almost the ideal metaphor for the entire genre.

 

And also, it's worth noting that La Bete Humaine predates many of the films most people consider early noir. This is more 'proto-noir'. All of the elements are there, but the delivery method hasn't been hammered down yet. 

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While I haven't watched many films noir, the dependence of this scene on audio and camera techniques with almost zero input from actors to evoke emotion, seems pioneering for this film. 

 

 

 

I think one of the things I like best about this opening is how silent the two characters are, but how in sync they are with each other. They perform complicated tasks with precise timing using only hand signals. And I love that we are never told what those signals mean, or what tasks they're actually completing. We just know they're getting things done, and the film says it's up to us to figure it out.

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    Without knowing it, I would have thought that this scene was actually supposed to be part of a suspenseful film and not so much for film noir. I know that film noir can be suspenseful, but this opening scene seemed to lack that overwhelming sense of foreboding that we experienced in the opening scene of Fritz Lang's M.

    One thing that is very characteristic of film noir in this post is that the characters are mysterious. You don't know who they are, what they are doing, and where they are going. You also don't know their fate; the train keeps speeding along - they might be being chased, they might crash, your mind just goes wild with possibilities.

 

 

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I agree about the feeling of "plunging" quickly into trouble. Not only is the train transitioning from one "portal" (through the tunnel), to another, but the people are too absorbed in themselves, in the mechanization of their lives (represented in their work) to see what is fully ahead, as they are glimpsing from a side angle.

 

And I was struck by the sense of collision when the second train barreled towards "us" in out first person point of view.

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The speed at which things were happening despite the fact that they weren't talking was interesting. They seemed to have been moving as fast as the train. What struck me was how many shapes I noticed. I might be alone on this one, but the shape of their goggles, triangle of the chain handle, the "full moon" shape of the near end of the tunnel the canopy under which they were heading and others. Finally, it felt a bis disarming to hear only the loudness of the train. It made me tense. Again maybe it was just me...

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I found it very interesting how all sounds were coordinated in different variations of the opening scene,for example,the sounds of the train in various spots were the train was passing through, like one was the bridge, I noticed the efforts that were created to make you feel the journey,in this specific scene on the bridge, I noticed that the sound of the passing train through the bridge cut off before they finished going through the bridge, at that point I felt the efforts they had made to make you feel the effects of the ride. The angles of the camera were great, it made me feel as i also was on board, also the scenes where they show you the landscape of where others trains we also involved with the business itself, I also found it interesting that the two train conductors working methods, for example the whistling and the pointing of the fingers, as they been working together in these train's for a while, also the vibrations of the train itself, the passion that the train conductors expressed was awesome.

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From the beginning fire in the boiler, to the closeup of the speeding wheels on the tracks I felt a mounting tension. The tension turning to a menacing dread of what's to come. The claustrophobic feelings in the tunnel turning to total darkness. Just waiting for what's next. But I'm not sure I would call this film noir but more a grandfather of the genre. With a true film noir you know something mysterious us about to happen. With "La Bête Humaine" you know something is about to happen but not necessarily with that ominous feeling of disaster

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Lot of great, classic symbolism here, but what really grabbed me was the sound design. The train whistle like a shrieking banshee, the clanging and the banging, the constant hum of machinery in motion.

Without looking it up (I'll do it tomorrow, it's been a long day), I'm willing to bet this had a lot of influence on David Lynch and Alan Splet's sound design on Eraserhead. Not a lot of clips available from that film on Youtube, but if you've seen it - you know what I mean. Just a stray observation.

Digging this class so far, I've been browsing the message board - lot of great discussions here!

 

 

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I watched this clip twice. The second time with the sound muted. I had read somewhere today how the opening sequence captured the excitement in it's time that The Great Train Robbery evoked in 1903, hence the experiment.

 

What I noticed is without the audio track, my scribbled notes were "grounded", "real" and "sense of speed". I loved the shots from the exterior of the engine, gazing down the lines of the track, crossing the bridge.

 

The cuts between the two characters - showing their easy working manner, conveys a level of trust and comfort establishing they are likely long-term colleagues. I don't know that I picked up any sense of foreboding even with the sound track. The opening - while unique and one I did not see before today - I appreciated more from the pure aesthetic of the composition and pacing and may have missed entirely the proto-noir elements.

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It pulled me into another world, the lack of verbal communication between the actors got me wondering what they were 'saying' with their hands. The speed on the train makes me think what tragic thing is about to happen.....

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"La Bete Humaine", translated "The Human Beast".  .Jean Renoir's film opening puts you directly into the gritty action observing two men working hard to tame this mechanical beast of a train.  It seems they are in a hurry eventually arriving at La Havre.  For the first three and a half minutes of the trip, we as viewers are simply there for the ride.  There are no clues as to where they are going or their motivation.  The mystery is for us to observe and analyze given clues.  A true mark of what I believe film noir to be.

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The opening to the movie La Bête Humaine has some incredible visuals that helped develop the intrigue. For me strangely I didn't feel as though there were darker ideas and tensions afoot in this opening. The high speed of the train and the wordless communication between the men set a pace that was, for me, the feeling of am action movie. With everything so rapidly occurring I felt myself engaged immediately and focussed that something could happen. Not necessarily bad but I do suppose that as I write this that there was tension in the clip as there needs to be some conflict for a movie to have a reason to exist. The pace is frantic and just like in anything in life it would be impossible to keep that up the entire time so it feels as though something interesting will occur. 

 

The calmness that the men work gives a feeling that they are old pro's and know exactly what they are doing. I really enjoyed seeing how they work and it made me want to know more about the reality of driving a train.

 

I suppose that because visuals play a very prominent role in film noir, to have a 4 minute clip with almost zero words spoken, and to do it in a way that keeps the viewer engaged is impressive and masterfully done.

 

Finally, the train shots in the documentary style really pulled me into the clip because it made me feel as though I was a part of the movie. I like that especially in this day and age where there's 3-D glasses and vibrating seats that something simple like that, realistic train shots could make me forget for a few minutes that I was watching a movie and not actually sitting in the engine of a train watching men work at their jobs.   

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I found it intriguing how the opening set up a sense of lonliness, with the empty shots of the landscape passing by the train, as well as the mournful whistle that echoed every so often. It felt like the two workers were the last two men on earth, chained to the shuddering machine, reliant on each other to keep going. I haven't seen a lot of film noir (yet), but I'm interested to see if that same feelingn of lonliness and isolation is present in the other films we'll be watching.

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It pulled me into another world, the lack of verbal communication between the actors got me wondering what they were 'saying' with their hands. The speed on the train makes me think what tragic thing is about to happen.....

I felt the same way, DaisyJune.  The very realistic, spellbinding movement of the train, sans any dialogue, drew me into the action and yes, wondering what they were saying and also - what was going to happen next.  I had that feeling in the back of my mind that something terrible or frightening was about to happen, especially as the train surged through the dark tunnel.

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I found the opening of Le Bete Humaine to be very interesting.  There aren't really any plot details revealed or anything that sets up any type of conflict, unlike in M.  I loved the realism of the opening--just close ups of the train and the train's mechanics working furiously down the tracks.  I also liked that the engineers had no dialogue--just grunts and hand motions.  This led further to the realism as I imagine that it must be very loud and it'd be difficult to casually talk.  It is obvious that these men do this job every day and have it down cold.  They don't need to talk--each man knows what to do.  The lack of conversation and the inclusion of grunts and hand motions also demonstrates the relationship these men have.  They work well together.  They know what each other is going to do.  They are in a "zone" so to speak and keep the train running successfully.  I liked how the only sound you could hear (until the end of the clip) were the sounds of the train.  These sounds varied between pleasant (the wheels humming down the track) and very unpleasant (the screeching brakes).  The screeching brakes coinciding with the train pulling into the station also sets up something bad to happen to someone getting on or off that train.

 

Typically in studio-era Hollywood films, train travel is romanticized.  Train travel was at its peak in the 1930s-1940s until air travel became the new glamorous way to travel.  The train cars were decorated in beautiful, ornate Art Deco styles and had all the comforts of home.  In North By Northwest, for example, the train is gorgeous and Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint have a very romantic evening on the train.  However, trains were also used often in noir.  In Double Indemnity for example, the train is used as a means to stage Barbara Stanwyck's husband's death.  While train travel can be very elegant and romantic, they can also be terrifying and dangerous--once a train is moving, there's not really anywhere you can go to escape a threat, and in trying to do so, can often result in death.

 

In Le Bete Humaine, the train is featured very prominently, more so than the men operating the train.  It could be interpreted that the train itself is going to play a very big role in the film.  The music begins at the end of the clip, which to me signifies that something is going to happen soon--especially since the music coincides with the train pulling into the station--people are going to get on/off the train and something bad is going to happen. 

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While several people have stated that the opening scene of La Bete Humaine does not demonstrate elements of film noir, I would like to point out the visual of the "wet streets" (or, in this case, the "wet train tracks") that appears to be a staple in most films noir. There's also the sense that the two workers believe themselves to be in complete control, yet one also feels the lack of control through the speed of the train as well as through the way in which the camera is quickly jumping from one image to the next. I believe this to be another characteristic of noir: Things just happen--no one is ever truly in control....

I agree with your explanation, TommyGirl711; also, I've learned that there are many ways that noir can be depicted in the movies.  The mood and feeling are there, but perhaps realized differently, i.e. the "wet streets" and "wet train tracks."  The initial tempo of the movie might have suggested something other than what many people consider "film noir," but the staple elements definitely are there.  I've never seen this movie, but based on this clip and the discussions about it, I plan to see it.

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If I didn't know that La Beta Humaine was part of the noir course, I don't think I would have described this opening as being connected with films noir.  The main feeling I took away from it was a feeling of tremendous speed and power, but with my thoughts focused in a more noir-ish direction, I can see several elements that could connect.  

 

First, there were a few moments that suggested danger or a looming darkness, one of which was the close up on the furnace to start the film.  Opening the film by looking into a darkness lit only by flames, with no context, creates a feeling of something out of control or dangerous.  There was also the time when the train plunged into the tunnel and the viewer is engulfed in the darkness as well for a moment. These moments, along with the feeling of speed, provided a bit of a feeling of danger.  Seeing how had the men had to work reminds the viewer of the power of the train and one begins to wonder if men can really keep it under control.  This is a very noir theme, in that many noir deal with elements spinning out of control, either passions unchecked, best laid plans gone astray, or natures that just can't be kept in check.

 

I also agree that idea that many have state about a feeling of isolation that emerges from the opening.  The two men on the train feel very isolated from everyone and everything else, which, of course, is also a common theme in films noir. 

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Being familiar with La bete humaine, I'd never really considered it as a film noir reference (but changing perspective on certain movies is one of the reasons I'm following this course, so I guess this starts here).

This sequence reminds me a lot of earlier sequences from Abel Gance's La roue (but Gance was a silent picture, so there's a big difference between the two films).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwGRg4Lw8aM

 

I would say La bete humaine has touches of noir in the following aspects :

- Inherited from La roue, the theme of fate, here symbolized by the railroad is a theme one usually finds in film noir.

- Renoir's approach is almost documentary-like. We see Gabin and Carette actually work for a few minutes. Their gestures are precise, truthful. Many film noirs have such a documentary-style (especially Mark Hellinger's films, usually shot on location instead of studios).

- As in M, this opening sequence doesn't have any music, which creates an expectancy, a foreboding mood amplified by the shrill sounds of the train and its whistles. Unlike Gance's rythmic approach, Renoir here lets the images play a little longer than necessary. The arrival to Le Havre, with the addition of music, almost comes as a relief to the viewer.

- Also La bete humaine tells us the story of common, striving people. They know their trade, and do not need words to perform their duties on the train. They work hard and are not rich, they belong to the working class (in 1937 France, cheminots were almost the symbol of the working class). Zola was a famous writer of the working class in his own time.

 

But I don't feel the lighting is particularly noirish, and feel Renoir's sense of the collective doesn't really make La bete humaine a true film noir either. I appreciate how its realistic approach and its dark themes make it a distant cousin of the genre, though...

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I found it interesting how different La Bete Humaine's opening was from M's. The opening scene from M was so quiet and slow. It was almost like moving through water, the air seemed so heavy and thick. La Bete Humaine was fast, loud, exiting. More like a thrill ride. You're kind of scared but really you're just having a great time. 

 

Also, M let you know very soon on that there had been a heinous crime. La Bete Humaine doesn't give you any sense of that, but instead it feels more like it's rushing you into something. Like, if you don't get there soon you'll miss it. 

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La Bete Humaine's realistic depiction is accurately displayed through the use of highlighting the two engineers effectively doing their job. The engineers use of signals to one another indicates a type of comfort and certain level of communication suggesting these two have been working together for a lengthy period of time.

Renoir's showing of the oncoming train (along with the sounding of their whistles), and the lack of distance in between the two locomotives presents the idea of how disastrous an accident would be if something went even slightly wrong.

Most effectively, the lurking of darkness, not revealing what's through the tunnel or (around the corner) gives a sinister feel to the film, which is always present in film noir. The highlighting of the tunnel and its pitch black darkness is an immediate implementation of tension as Renoir takes the audience directly through the tunnel. We don't see the train go into the tunnel and then immediately witness it coming out the other end. Renoir puts us right there with the two engineers. He drops is into their world, revealing the seriousness of their job, and why it is so very important for the two engineers to work effectively as one.

Lastly, as the train arrives at Le Havre, commanding music is played conveying the two engineers have accomplished a heroic feat by arriving safely.

Everything about the opening of La Bete Humaine entertains the aspects of a film noir, and all aspects combined are the equivalent of the biggest elemet in this genre- Doom.

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Being familiar with La bete humaine, I'd never really considered it as a film noir reference (but changing perspective on certain movies is one of the reasons I'm following this course, so I guess this starts here).

This sequence reminds me a lot of earlier sequences from Abel Gance's La roue (but Gance was a silent picture, so there's a big difference between the two films).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwGRg4Lw8aM

 

I would say La bete humaine has touches of noir in the following aspects :

- Inherited from La roue, the theme of fate, here symbolized by the railroad is a theme one usually finds in film noir.

- Renoir's approach is almost documentary-like. We see Gabin and Carette actually work for a few minutes. Their gestures are precise, truthful. Many film noirs have such a documentary-style (especially Mark Hellinger's films, usually shot on location instead of studios).

- As in M, this opening sequence doesn't have any music, which creates an expectancy, a foreboding mood amplified by the shrill sounds of the train and its whistles. Unlike Gance's rythmic approach, Renoir here lets the images play a little longer than necessary. The arrival to Le Havre, with the addition of music, almost comes as a relief to the viewer.

- Also La bete humaine tells us the story of common, striving people. They know their trade, and do not need words to perform their duties on the train. They work hard and are not rich, they belong to the working class (in 1937 France, cheminots were almost the symbol of the working class). Zola was a famous writer of the working class in his own time.

 

But I don't feel the lighting is particularly noirish, and feel Renoir's sense of the collective doesn't really make La bete humaine a true film noir either. I appreciate how its realistic approach and its dark themes make it a distant cousin of the genre, though...

Thanks Cinephage!!! I guarantee you Renoir was inspired from this 1923 scene.That was some great cutting in that clip. I too often recognize bits from early films,that are used later on in other films...and you nailed it with this one. Good job.
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I have only seen the clip of LA Bete Humaine. The interaction in the close quarters of the two conducters,the blowing of the train whistle, and the switching more than once of the tracks makes me want to watch this film.

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