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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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Fritz Lang 's 1954 Hollywood adaptation Human Desire also opens with the train.

 

In my review at filmsnoir.net I said of this opening scene - and this word for word can be applied to Renoir...

 

"For the first five minutes of the picture Lang introduces his story using shots of a locomotive-powered inter-urban passenger train barrelling through a flat landscape and one last tunnel before it reaches the ordered tangle of converging and diverging tracks at its destination. From the first frame the evocative musical score of Daniele Amfitheatrof establishes both an echo of the train’s rumbling progress and a dark counterpoint that portends the dark drama that will follow in the diesel’s wake. Lang brilliantly uses the train’s inexorable passage and the determinism of the rails that brook no turning back or detour: fate is laid out in hard steel, and the switches and way-lays are beyond the driver’s control – all he can do is slow or speed his progress along an ineluctable pre-ordained trajectory – and even then he has a schedule to stick to."

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I felt as though I was riding right along with the two engineers.  For a while I kinda wanted to get off the train.  Scary...especially through the tunnel when the screen went black. 

The train whistle was a haunting warning of something ominous coming along. I thought the relationship between the two engineers interesting. They worked so well in concert with each other. One could almost smell the oil and steam. I thought I might reach into the film and touch the engineers.

I noticed no one waiting on the platforms. The weather appeared gloomy. 

One gets the sensation from this scene that both men were speeding right into trouble. I can't wait to see the complete movie.

I too noticed the mystery of the deserted platforms... at a busy major port city, no less! Too bad the clip ended when it did. Really too bad that I live overseas, far from TCM and Netflix coverage, so it shall remain a mystery for me.

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The barrelling train conveys the sense of inevitability that is so intertwined with film noir, the sense that there can only be one destination the tracks lead to.  That said, the camera angles utilized also instill a certain amount of concern that said fate might not even be reached unharmed; the oncoming trains on the opposite tracks that form a visual collision of sorts onscreen as one passes behind the other, and the plunges into darkness make you eager to come out the other end of the tunnel, as the light at its end grows brighter and brighter, providing temporary hope that is destined to be only short-lived.  And intermittently, the discordant shriek of the whistle and the grating rattle of the bridge crossing all ratchet up the tension to the point where there is genuine relief when the train and camera finally come to a halt.

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As others have mentioned, there was a mounting tension as the train seems to continue to gather speed and the shrill shriek of the whistle seems to be a warning, not just of the approaching train but of something larger.

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The whole scene is very evocative and a lot happens in the space of four minutes. The close-ups of wheels, chimney smoke and camera positioning create the impression of intimacy, importance, intensity and excitement. Sound is prioritised over dialogue - a very effective technique - implies intensity and importance, culminating when the train arrives at the station. Meanwhile, train/tunnels have a deeply rooted, Freudian meaning, linking the films and the Noir genre, to deeper psychological issues. 

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I thought the very same thing about the smoking train conductor. I half expected there would be an explosion of some sort.

 

Regarding smoking as a staple in films noir, the smoke provided most of the ambiance and set a mood. One film that comes to mind, though not a film noir, is "Good Night and Good Luck" with all the cigarette smoke slowly swirling on scene. It almost felt like a character itself. I think to remove it would have changed the mood/tone completely

Good point, regarding smoking. Another noir in which smoking played a major role was "Double Indemnity". 

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I saw it like this the air was full of high tension, suspense all around. from no dialogue to the quick cuts in the editing. the train going into the tunnel of darkness was a sign of things to come later on. After the tunnel you hear music while the train flys into the station, with quick cuts to the title of the film thru out the station. When the train stops, we stop and can catch our breath...for now.

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It's dangerous commenting on the details of a film that I haven't seen in its entirety. And I was one who suggested that Bete's opening scene does not show the characteristic cinematic approach of a film noir. But I just read the film synopsis on TCM. In one aspect, that of the story of a triangle of characters where the protagonist is tempted by lust (or greed or envy - one of the deadly sins), it seems that Bete fits the noir bill. I think I'll have to watch it, to understand this better. 

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I was struck by the very first image: a gaping inferno and deafening noise.  It's not until the camera begins to move back that we see it's a boiler in a steam locomotive.  That suggests to me that this open craw is going to devour someone eventually.  The title, "The Human Beast", reinforces this message through the actions and image of the two engineers: they look dehumanized in their grimy outfits, communicate through a "language" of gestures, whistles and pokes, and seem to exist only to serve/service the real protagonist of this scene, the speeding locomotive.  This open gullet image is repeated twice more: entering the blackness of the tunnel and exiting it.  The latter is the most effective because it is preceded by a totally black screen accompanied by the deafening noise of the hurtling locomotive. Ever so faintly the light at the end of the tunnel materializes, slowly allieviating our fear and disorientation.  The triumphal music that begins as the locomotive enters the Le Havre train yard, seems to communicate the heroic stature of all the locomotives that we see as we approach the station.  They, it says to me, are the true heroes and protagonists of the film up to this point.  Parenthetically, I love films from this period that present scenes from real life: I am in a time capsule as I see the latest technology (the locomotives), the architecture of the train stations, tunnels, villages and the actual train yard at Le Havre.  The great films of Italian neo-realism such as Obsession, Rome, Open City, Shoeshine, Germany, Year Zero, Bicycle Thieves and Nights of Cabiria do such a wonderful job of this.  Those actual places will live forever thanks to the movies shot on those locations, just as will these beautiful locomotives and French villages.

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Watching this clip from La Bete Humaine automatically surprised me as the camera work was so clean and spot-on that I was surprised to see it was made in 1938. I expected fake backdrops or running scenery but was pleasantly surprised. It's amazing that despite the very little dialogue, you are still engaged and interesed in what is going on. I can't wait to watch the entire film.

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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. 

 

I also thought of the comparison between M and La Bete Humaine. They both create an unsettling feeling for the viewer (maybe more so M since we know there is a murderer, but also in La Bete Humaine through the train noises and whistling). Like something uncanny is about to happen, or is already taking place. 

 

However, I was sort of expecting something else to happen in La Bete Humane, especially in the moments that the train goes under a bridge and the screen is totally black but we can still hear the noises. In the couple of scenes that that situation was taking place I was expecting one of the machinists to appear dead or something like that. So, for me, in both cases I was anticipating some sort of crime or disappearance. The light, the sounds (lack of music) and isolation of the characters contribute to this feeling. At the same time, I found interesting the introduction of classical music in La Bete Humaine, and again it made me anticipate some sort of action that doesn't really come (besides the entering of the train into the city).

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Watching the clip I see two guys doing a dirty, menial job. Once in  a while they go near hell, sometimes by fire (furnace) sometimes by darkness (the tunnel). I don't expect to see them after work sitting around a croissant discussing the ups and downs of a Platonic love. I expect them to keep being raw and dirty. That's how life treats them. That's how they will treat life and others. 

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The arrival of the train in La Bete Humaine is reminiscent of the Lumiere Brothers' Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat made 40 years earlier. Somehow, Renoir made a sort of homage, notwithstanding Jean Gabin's wilingness to make a film about locomotives, and the impeccable vehicle came from Zola's novel, of course, but truncating all its political overtones and focusing more on the social struggles of the workingman.

 

The opening scene is a perfect example of the film's poetic realism, as Peter Bogdanovich would assert, realism--due to grittiness of the task, and poetic--of Renoir's filmmaking. Renoir's reputation on socially conscious films was carried onto La Bete Humaine, yet, I think the film is not so much as an absolute example of a film noir in a sense (Carne's Le Quai de Brume is), but there are several elements (expressionistic lighting, morally-challenged characters, a sort-of femme fatale in Simone Simon) in the film that can be considered it as one.

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Someone else may already have suggested this.  If so, I apologize for the repetition.  I simply don’t have the patience to read each and every comment.

 

It seems to me that the train featured in the opening of  ‘La Bete Humaine’ is a metaphor for destiny.  We all like to think that we are the master of our own destiny, but it takes a great deal of effort to keep that destiny on track and moving at the right speed.  Much as it takes a great deal of effort for the two man crew in the film to keep the train on the track at the right speed.  Sometimes we’re in the dark for a while, but we trust that there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel.  The suggestion in the film is that it would be very easy for our ‘train’ to derail or to plunge ahead at uncontrollable speed.

 

Indeed, this is exactly what happens to so many of the characters featured in films noir.  They seem to be on a carnival ride from hell, heading toward a precipice with no ability to change tracks or even to slow things down.  This is illustrated beautifully in the dream sequences from ‘Stranger on the Third Floor’.  We see it when Bette Davis submits to her fate in ‘The Letter’.  We know early on that there will be no happy ending for the principle characters in ‘Born to Kill’.  Etc, etc.

 

So I’m going with that.  I’ve not yet seen ‘La Bete Humaine’, but I’ll bete we’ll see characters in that film riding the carnival ride from hell, too.

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I love that the opening shot is on the train furnace foreshadowing the hell and anguish that will be experienced by our antagonist. There is a nice bit of a stylized use of darkness and light in the tunnel scene, a hallmark of the film noir genre.  

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The opening scene of La Bete Humaine is emblematic of the French Cinema Verite style that crops up so frequently in classic French films. It is a gritty, grimy, realistic depiction of the jobs of the conductors. Even in such a flatly realistic setting, in broad daylight, Renoir still manages to inject some darkness into the scene.

 

The limited communication due to the noise. The constant emphasis on the tracks, along which the train speeds to its inexorable fate. The feeling of being on the train, coupled with the inability to control it.

 

It all boils down to one central idea: you are speeding towards your destiny, and there's nothing you can do about it.

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Completely agree with your analysis of the opening sequence and La Bete Humaine  adds something completely different to the film noir style. I would argue that the use of sound and pace in La Bete Humaine  sharply contrasts to that in M; instead of a slow, high angle opening shot and the singing voice of a child, the viewer is immediately grabbed by the loudness of a train whistle combined with the movement of a train. 

The pace is fast, alarming with warning of darkness to come (tunnel, inability for the characters to speak easily) with possibly a more lateral approach to storytelling than we may see develop in M; more of a journey with a specific destination, with fate in control, as you suggested. Albeit different openings/styles both films seem to enhance the noir style, with we can make logical guesses as to what will happen to the child...in this film, we're as much in the dark about the fate of our two conductors as they are, pulling into Le Havre.  

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Sorry to be late with my response.  (Blame it on my eye dilation at the ophthalmoloigist yesterday...)  I loved the speed and sense of urgency and inevitability conveyed by the train hurtling down the track, especially at the beginning of the sequence.  The music, added in later, just continued the rhythm supplied by the train itself at the start.  For me, it's always great to see actors from The Grand Illusion together. Their sense of camaraderie and communication lets you know they've been doing this train circuit for quite a while.

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The opening scene has a sense of gruff realism that seems to drraw one's attention instantaneously. From the screeching of the train's whistle, to the hellfire that eminated from the train's furnace. I also thought the shot of the train wheels added an element of tangibility, as profoundly as the roar of the train itself when it passes by. And the interaction of the two men who monitored and manuvered the train, gave a good contrast between man and machine; between flesh and steel. Perhaps the shot that captured my attention the most, was the train's entrance into a long black tunnel, and the slow consuming build of light that awaited it as it exited. And perhaps the most interesting part, was the sudden build of excitement as the music began. The orchestration itself, adding an element of glorification or even a sense of exaltation upon its arrival. Yet the absence of human voices, created a sense of isolation, with nothing but the voice of the train, narrating its journey.

 

I think the opening of this film contributed handsomely to the genre of noir. Not only by the visceral effect it can impose to the viewer, but also through a quality that both holds subtlety, and a uniqueness that I find esoteric. It contributed greatly to how each scene was shot, and the well formed flow of the transitioning of each sequence.

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I, like others, compared this opening to M. Where M had silence, La Bete Humaine, is all about noise. The orchestra doesn't show up until the train starts to slow down. Before then, it's the whistles of the train and the conductors, the clanking of tracks and the pounding of steel by the conductors, that fill the air. I also really liked how, in the shots along the wheels, that the noise seems to overpower the audio pickups. It's like a giant white noise, blocking out everything else. I get a sense that there's something overcoming and powerful that is going to impact the actors, that's going to overpower them, and drive them forward to a deadly end. 

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Outstanding opening.  No talking - whistling to each other.  Mechanization - and all of the sounds that go with it.  The tunnel darkness is excellent and the whistle before the train enters.  Everything is mechanical and the shadows throughout give this scene a very noirish impact.  Reminds me a bit of Burt Lancaster in the film THE TRAIN.

 

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I definitely found the opening scene of La Bete Humaine not noir! I actually felt that it was more relaxing: the rhythm of the train, the shots following the train that were taken from the engineer's perspective, the easy working relationhip between the two men. I saw the movie after watching the Daily Dose, and the opening sequence is deceptive because the rest of the film is anything but relaxing. But it's almost impossible to see that when you're watching these two railroad engineers at work in the opening sequence.

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the obvious contrast between this and M is the noise. up until the 3 minute and 11 second mark, we hear nothing but the sound of the train chugging and screeching along. there is also a bit of unintentional sexual innuendo, as the train enters the tunnel and the men make gestures to each other with their hands that could be perverse in nature. the build-up of the music as the train slows down signifies the achievement in reaching their destination. but the empty platform is eerie and foreboding, and might suggest that this ride is their last. 

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I'm not familiar with the film whatsoever, but the opening minutes set the stage for, at least a beginning, of tension and urgency. Even though, especially at the end of the clip, everything is coming to a stop or a pause, everything is building up in urgency towards that moment. From the quiet of the men to their gentle whistling and handgestures to their shouts, to the train traversing prairies and then dark tunnels to finally arrive to a industrial place, that looks part train-graveyard and part abandoned or semi-abandoned town. The music at the end heightens this sense of urgency. It grows quickly and ends just as so after a climax. The scene seems to hint the transition from a pastorial life with workers doing their work unified, in peace, to what may disrupt that peace, the foreboding and empty station in which they stop.

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