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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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Jean Renoir's La Bete Humaine, 1938 does not open as a conventional Film Noir (in tension building silences or menacing shadows) films usually does.  Its a different type of Film Noir opening with high energy (threatening to overwhelm) mixed in with grit, dirt, heat and smoke with the humans keeping control over it (energy/automotive), or, just barely.

 

There's a sense that anything can happen in running a train as in a Film Noir film.  If one does not stay alert enough (to feed the fire, watching ahead for visual markers and making sure certain switches are turned on or off) to reach one's final destination safely, it could be a fatal one.  Compare to Fritz Lang's M, if a child does not stay alert, he or she will not make it safely home.  The triumphant music heralding the arrival of the train into the Le Havre station emphasizes the safe arrival but some relief as well.  The energy hasn't dissipated and is awaiting for what is next.

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The first image of the fiery heart of the train being fed as it screeches, hurtling along the tracks, is one that informs the audience of what sort of ride this is going to be.  The lack of conversation does not mean a lack of camaraderie between the train engineers.  Amazing camera work in the tunnel, and use of grey scale throughout.  

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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.  

 

Seems like another trademark of film noir is the technique of opening with a closeup shot that gives only a bit of information about the context, it almost works the opposite way of an establishing shot and definitely sets up the mysterious tone that defines the genre. We saw a similar thing in M, where the scene opens with the children playing ball but we really have no idea where they are or why they are doing it until the scene advances further. 

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Like the gritty feeling and the gestures that build, and show, the bond between the men. The power of the speed seems unstoppable. Do not think the tunnel penetrations are ment as sexual allusions á la Hitch. The dynamic between the communication of the men and the rushing of the train is powerful.

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Daily Dose #2: The Arrival of a Train (The Opening Scene of La Bête Humaine)

 

In the opening scenes of ‘La Bête Humaine’, we have a pair of actors whose characters remain nameless and who only communicate via gestures and monosyllabic yells. And then there is the train, which seems to have a personality of its own, and it is the very reason why these 2 characters, played by Jean Gabin and Fernand Ledoux are here on the screen. 

 

Finally, as the trains rolls into the station, we get a name: ‘Le Havre’, the terminus of this trip. At this point the soundtrack erupts with a cheerful tune, giving a little bit of warmth to the tale that has just begun. 

 

But where does it end? What happens to these characters? How does the train figure into all of this? 

 

We have to simply sit back and relax, and wait for Jean Renoir’s motion picture of Émile Zola’s ‘La Bête Humaine’, to tell us a story. 

 

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The realistic view of the train in the opening is an attitude check.  As in the Noir style, this is a film of reality, true to nature as opposed to a Hollywood fantasy.  This is a real train.  Huge in size, dwarfing the engineers who operate her.  Powerful as it races full steam down the tracks and across a bleak landscape.  The engineers like most characters in Noir stories are on a mission.  They are grimy and sweaty, know their job and seem  at home in this dirty industrial environment as the camera makes us part of the claustrophobic scene.  The realism is pretty much in your face for the duration of this clip.   

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I truly loved this opening as well. No dialog was even needed...the power of the moment was undeniable. Watching the train literally approach the "light at the end of the tunnel" was a poignant scene.

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While I get that the camera work was amazing, and I loved that we had a four minute opening with no dialogue, only gestures and monosyllabic grunts, I'm bummed that I don't get why this was such a transcendent scene. 

 

From a Noir perspective, I get it - it was dark and gritty.  (Almost grimy) And that the shrieking of the train and loud noises were intended to be jarring. 

 

Maybe when I see the film this weekend as a whole the genius of this scene will become more apparent.  :)

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The use of specifics sounds in this opening clip caught my interest.  In the beginning minutes, when the train operators are in the countryside (from what I saw), the use of sounds such as train whistles, the train's engine, wheels clicking on the tracks, shoveling coal chunks in to a roaring fire, etc...i think add "darker touches" to this opening.  For example, why doesn't the audience see more people?    But, then, in the 90 seconds-ish, the audience sees the train approaching a quaint village, and classical music begins to play.  I know there is probably some significance in this....

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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.

 

It is not just the French who uses the arrival of trains as a prelude to their films, especially on noirs. Allen Baron utilizes a similar technique in his low-budgeted botched-hit noir film Blast of Silence, though the "arrival" somewhat brings a kind of foreboding to the main character.

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I have not seen this film before, but I’m already hooked.  As a photographer I thought the entire sequence was gorgeous.  Speaking to Richard Edward’s curator’s note I was more caught up in the contrast between the grace of the train moving down the track with the methodical and almost casual skill of the engineers bringing it into the station.  There is an elegance to it, speed and power and grace matched with calculation and control.  A lot to take from four minutes of film.  And with such an arrival I simply have to know what the train is carrying, though I’m also convinced it can’t be anything good. 

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

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

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

 

 

Very realistic so that you felt like you were on the train.  

I liked that it showed going in and out of the tunnel spending time on the darkness.

I guess I would say that La Bete Humaine contributes the use of darkness setting the stage for a story, truth through the darkness.

 

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Seems like another trademark of film noir is the technique of opening with a closeup shot that gives only a bit of information about the context, it almost works the opposite way of an establishing shot and definitely sets up the mysterious tone that defines the genre. We saw a similar thing in M, where the scene opens with the children playing ball but we really have no idea where they are or why they are doing it until the scene advances further. 

I agree, the close up was powerful. 

 

I was also intrigued by the train entering the tunnel, Seems our instructor meant us to go there, to stay in the shadows 

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Not really into this opening, like I was of the prior film but I have a few thoughts about it. I love the opening scene of the inferno fire and then the camera pulls back to reveal the steam stove. Also, the co-engineer lights one cigarette after another, "smokes like a fright train" . The speed of the fright train seems to represent how they propel the story in a rapid forward  motion, almost warning you of the racing pace the film is going to reveal itself. The long black train  tunnel submerses the audience into an experience of black dread, lending the feeling of fear and anticipation of the light at the end of the tunnel. This reminds me of the tunnel scene in Willy Wonka and the crazy and nauseating feeling is the same. I really thought that once the train came to the light at the end was going to reveal a death. A classic stunt....waiting to see where this goes....

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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.

Thanks for the clip, movie-eater.  You say Renoir's images run "a little longer than necessary".  I disagree  with the word "necessary".  I think they run longer than is comfortable, adding another strand of unease the braid of techniques being  used by Renoir to fill us with apprehension.

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The opening of La Bete Humaine drops the viewer into the middle of an unfamiliar situation. The viewer is confined in the compartment with the engineers and while they seem to know what they are doing the viewer hasn’t a clue and is left grasping for something to hold on to. This creates not only of feelings of suspense and angst, but also of danger. The viewer is more of a “fly-on-the-wall” than a first-person participant as seen in “Lady in the Lake,” but this only adds to the anxiety because the viewer has no control of the situation. This film is brighter than a typical noir film but it’s still the smoky gritty world of blue collar workers and it propels the viewer into a world of discomfort.

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I'm a railroad buff so this scene makes me happy.  It's hard for me to think about anything other than the train and it's movement down the tracks, but that may be Renoir's intention.  The scene's characters are the 2 engineers and the locomotive.  There's no dialogue, just the roar of the engine, the whistle and gestures for communication.  The surrounding scenery whizzes by without getting even a glance from the engineers, they're just focused on the task of running the machine and moving speedily, powerfully onward down the tracks, detached from the world through which they hurtle.  

 

The main break in the sequence prior to arrival at Le Havre is when the train enters a tunnel and the screen goes black for an uncomfortably long time.  As the light at the end of the tunnel begins to appear, the reassurance of being able to see the scene slowly returns.   

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Who knew that operating a locomotive was so complicated and so physically demanding? I enjoyed watching these men drive the train, and I wonder if an irony isn't in the works here. I haven't seen this film yet, but I've read quite a few of these posts so I have some idea where it's heading. I'm wondering if the film won't go on to compare the way Gabin's character is similarly "driven" by dark compulsions (shades of M). Is there a mechanical destiny-machine that will drive him -- independently of his own best interests -- toward his doom? Is he in some sense being "railroaded" by fate?

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Fascinating! As much as I loved the opening to M, I really didn't enjoy this one at all! It's tremendously noisy - in a very obnoxious way. I get that it's realistic, but it actually hurt my ears watching this clip. Additionally, unlike the scene from the day before, this one doesn't really give me any indication of what this movie is about or where it's going to go. It's mysterious in that I don't know why we're watching this train - where's it going? Will someone get on or off? I have no idea. But, for me, there's just not enough information. I don't feel compelled to keep watching - in fact, over the span of this short clip, I found my attention already wandering.

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Jean Renoir's La Bete Humaine, 1938 does not open as a conventional Film Noir (in tension building silences or menacing shadows) films usually does.  Its a different type of Film Noir opening with high energy (threatening to overwhelm) mixed in with grit, dirt, heat and smoke with the humans keeping control over it (energy/automotive), or, just barely.

 

There's a sense that anything can happen in running a train as in a Film Noir film.  If one does not stay alert enough (to feed the fire, watching ahead for visual markers and making sure certain switches are turned on or off) to reach one's final destination safely, it could be a fatal one.  Compare to Fritz Lang's M, if a child does not stay alert, he or she will not make it safely home.  The triumphant music heralding the arrival of the train into the Le Havre station emphasizes the safe arrival but some relief as well.  The energy hasn't dissipated and is awaiting for what is next.

A good post, and I agree it does have some noirness to it. Like one-star thai food is hot. But in my book it's not there yet.

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Yes, this clip has a documentary feel to it and recognizing the young Jean Gabin and observing his characterization, I begin to suspect that this will be a drama, perhaps a political drama, about the French working class. As a film sequence it is unfocused and over long. Am i supposed to be observing the workers or am I only along for the ride that gets me "off the street" and into the theatre. About the only thing it does is make me recall Buster Keaton's The General. That was well edited and  exciting. As an opening I'm not much interested in seeing the rest of this film.

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The instant before the music kicks in, there is a sinister screech by what is perhaps the train's whistle. We are treated to constant views of the complicated machinery run by two average looking men. These early shots and the sinister sound that precedes the music foreshadows imminent disaster. 

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Not having seen this movie I will stick to answering the questions this time....

 

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

The train ride gives us that childish sense of adventure.  It all feels very European obviously and so is a different experience for the American viewer who is used to train scenes in the wild and open county of the American West. The minute by minute footage of two guys doing their job in real time gives one a sense of expectation although to me this particular footage alone would not convey a sense of dread of the monster we expect to see further into the movie.

 

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

The "in your face" opening of looking into the fire looked very much to me like looking into the mouth of hell itself. But we are immediately moved into a sense of normalcy as we see that we are on a train ride and playing conductor.  Soon though, we drive into the tunnel, another ominous sign that we are quickly and inevitably moving into darkness.  The actions of the conductor and his assistant move us quickly back into normalcy after the "dark" sequence which serves as a comfort to the viewer.  I believe the opening is meant to convey a false sense of security. The fast movement of the train also gives the viewer a sense of inevitability that there is nothing we can do to stop what is coming.....

 

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

The use of the fire and the tunnel in my mind are definitely forerunners to disaster. Overall the use of trains in movies over the years has provided adventure, fun and horror for the film viewer.  In the noir genre however because we cannot stop the train at will, or at least the viewer can't, there is limited room, no place to hide and the understanding that if someone wants to do something to us, they can.  The film North By Northwest to come of course decades later, gives the viewer that same sense.  There is no escape for Cary Grant from his pursuers except into the arms of a mysterious and beautiful woman.  The overall sense is that we lose that locus of control we all believe that we have.  Could that be one of the most frightening things for the mind of a human being to embrace?  I think so.

 

 

   

 

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