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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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My first reaction is that the men are not truly comfortable with their work.  It may just be working man's bravado and camaraderie.   In fact, several of the actions seem to require a struggle and brute strength.  This is a huge and at the time modern powerful beast that they were struggling to bring to speed and to slow down.   It's as if they are wrestling with the uncontrollable trappings of the modern industrial age.  The powerful beast is ready to destroy them if they slip up.  The human experience of a train is almost overwhelming in its power. 

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The opening scene is very exciting, lots of action. What will happen next. Coming into rail yard one sees steam off to the right. Is that from another train on the same tracks coming at you. Now this is a way to run a railroad. Both engineer and fireman are very alert with their speeding locomotive. Notice how they pickup water on the fly compared to trains in the US that would have to stop at the water towers and a big pipe would be lowered to fill the locomotive's water tank.

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I agree with the earlier posting, the sound of the approaching train along with the expression of each of the conductors faces lend to the suspense and the overall atmosphere of the opening sequence of the film.

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To make a connection between the opening scenes of La Bête Humaine and noir film, I'd have to go with chase scenes. no one being chased here, but noir film chase scenes work best when there is no music, as here; suspense sis conveyed through natural sound. Here it's a locomotive, but it could be a loud factory, a busy street scene, or the sound of cars in A chase scene with cars (like the chase scene in Bullit). Loud, fast, full of contrast. and Gabin and his fellow engineer are fully immersed in the running of the engine; dirty, sweaty, making split-second decisions, language reduced to an occasional whistle from Gabin to get his friend' attention. If anything, it's the raw energy, here that noir film seeks to portray in its best action scenes.

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The operation of the train by the two engineers reminded me of the execution of a heist of some sort which is a staple of noir. The unspoken communication between the two sets them up as a team; they trust each other to do their tasks at the appointed time. Will this lead to some sort of betrayal further on down the road? (cherchez le femme...) Will their teamwork be needed to save themselves from a future situation??

You'll have to keep watching to find out.

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I thought that this opening scene was very "un-Hollywood." The men wore dirty uniforms, they didn't talk, their work was plain and average; in fact, they could have been anyone. On the other hand, they did their jobs as a team. Hand signals kept them connected; each was familiar with the job; this is just another routine route...And that's the point. There is clearly a point coming when this experience (or someone's experience) will be anything but routine.

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I felt that this opening scene contributed to the film noir style, simply in that it is mysterious. The images of the moving train are very realistic, and the content seemed to be just a normal day for the characters with no surprises, which really feeds to the intrigue of what will happen that makes this film fit into the genre. 

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I actually had the chance to see this film recently which was good since there is so little space on my DVR at the moment I probably would not have been able to record it tomorrow. The opening swept me away almost immediately. The absence of music in the very beginning leaves you with the ordinary noises of the train: the clacking of the wheels, the grinding of the gears, the sharp whistles. It instills that romanticism of travel by rail and serves to sweep you away to another world, one which seemingly seems familiar but increasingly becomes more fraught with excitement as the music comes soaring in at the end of the clip. This is the known world of these engineers. They can communicate with whistles and gestures and have little use for words. This is their domain, their home, where everything makes sense.

 

There are many touches in this opening that hint at the darkness to come and the journey of a protagonist in a film noir can expect. The film opens on the broiler with the fire raging, although contained, serving as a metaphor for the fire that burns in most noir protagonists and everyone else for that matter just below the surface. It just takes one person or event to set that fire free. Careening through a dark tunnel with no end in sight is another perfect description of film noir. The seemingly endless darkness with that glimmer of hope at the end that the protagonist will make it through and carries them on their journey. Finally our transport arrives at its destination: a train station that appears desolate and empty, similar to how one might feel at the end of a great noir. It's a fascinating and romantic journey but at the end of it you're left with no one and nothing.

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Excellent focus on the train engine from various angles, especially from the undercarriage. The feeling of motion and speed was almost tangible. The exterior views from the train reminded me of the views from the train for Hitchcock's "North by Northwest." The interactions of the two engineers convey a sense of teamwork and fraternity within the first few minutes. Well done.[/size]

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The train is a big hulking mechanical device that is moving unstoppably forward. The train tracks suggest that the path forward is inevitable and pre-ordained. The humans have to ride this great metal magic carpet to it's end. The humans have the illusion of being in charge but they are actually being swept along....Inevitability and abandoning oneself to fate (whether true abandonment or denial of one's culpability in the path chosen) is a classic film noir trope.

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1. What does the film's realistic depiction of a train add to this opening? Grit. I know I'm in for earthy characters and worldly cares.


2. What are some of the specific shots, sounds, or techniques that add "darker touches" to this opening scene? The camera shakes with the engine; the camera pulling back is not terribly smooth. The medium shot of the engineer giving the other a cigarette seemed to indicate not only friendship, but that they were both men of the world. They have dirty, blue-collar clothes and faces and communicate wordlessly in the nearly endless wall of sound.


3. In what ways can the opening of La Bete Humaine be considered an important contribution to the film noir style? Ebert tends to equate gratuitous smoking as an earmark of film noir, so who am I to argue? This scene oozes that sort of thing.


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I can't wait to see this entire movie; I had never heard of it before now. I watched the clip 3 times before I posted. No actual music until the train is coming into Le Havre; the engine, train on the tracks & the whistle make a rare & unique music of their own. When they go into the tunnel & we're in complete darkness--not for long, but enough to make you uneasy & know something will soon go wrong. I love Jean Gabin & look forward to his performance. The shot of us (amazing camera work & editing) riding the train track like a ghost; so seamless with a touch of danger.

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I've loved TCM and black and white movies for many years . I have seen most of these movies but was never aware of the term Noir. I'm excited to view them with a different eye. The opening of this film in my opinion is very dangerous and fast. I feel it is portraying to the viewer a sense of a thrill and excitement of the way the conductor lives his life. Not afraid of pushing it to the limit. The fireman goes along with him, taking orders and does exactly as he is told. He needs direction and the conductor is just the man to do it.  

The empty train station and the lonely look of the rail yard gives us a feeling of doom. But the train itself gives us the strength and power of the world, the power to move on and attack whatever gets in the way of progression.

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I thought that this opening scene was very "un-Hollywood." The men wore dirty uniforms, they didn't talk, their work was plain and average; in fact, they could have been anyone. On the other hand, they did their jobs as a team. Hand signals kept them connected; each was familiar with the job; this is just another routine route...And that's the point. There is clearly a point coming when this experience (or someone's experience) will be anything but routine.

Their work was anything but "plain".  The machinery is very complex and communication (although non-verbal) is critical to the successful conducting of the train.  Driving a car might be viewed as simple, but driving a train sure isn't.

 

The complexity of the train is setting us up for the complexity of the murder mystery that is to follow.

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I definitely felt a sense of urgency, of haste, throughout the clip.  It makes me wonder why the "need for speed".  Was it because they were behind schedule to a stop or something more sinister, or trying to get away from something?  I think the former, but it was very interesting to me.

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Such urgency.  The speed of the train and the loudness of the wheels on the track along with the great camera angles on the front and side of the train...loved it.  The shot of the other train passing, and the light at the end of the tunnel as it grows are incredible. Enter music that leads to you to the station, as the music builds to  that stunning shot of the station.  Black and white can be so powerful.

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I'm a little behind on this forum--and this has probably been said many times in previous posts--but it does strike me how trains are so essential to film noir.  While we can have contemporary noir films with airplanes and cars, the passenger train is a fundamental element of original noir:  that sense of a powerful machine that carries people yet allows them some sense of mobility and the physical space for dramatic action and interaction (unlike the confined space in airplanes--which is why the "drama on a plane" genre is so formulaic and ultimately, kitschy).  The sense of mobility is an illusion, though, since the train is in control, just like the noir characters' destinies are out of their control.    I watched Key Largo the other night on TCM, and while there isn't a train shown in the film, "Dad" Temple refers to the train that was destroyed by a previous hurricane, and this is the story that really frightens Johnny Rocky, giving him his first hint that his own destiny is not necessarily in his own hands.  

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The engine fire in the opening scene for me conveyed a sense of danger.  The momentum of the train made me feel as if it was leading up to something catastrophic.  I almost expected another train on the tracks coming towards this one or a body on the tracks.  When the train went through the tunnel I thought perhaps one of the engineers might be missing when I came out of the other side.  The music however, did feel somewhat adventurous, as one post already observed.

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There is a recklessness about the train; an anticipation of something about to happen.  Yet on the surface the engineers seem very much in control. Will the train stop in time or fly off the rails?  A unique way to introduce tension.

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The firebox, the tunnel, the grime, the loud sounds and whistles all create an unsettling environment that keeps the viewer on their toes. Along with the editing, this creates a lot of tension for the viewer while the men are confident as they go about their work. The train carries the men to and from distant places on a regular basis. The same track, the same equipment, the same crew. Day in, day out. It's their job. It's their station, so-to-speak.

 

I love the detail and accuracy of the locomotive and its operation. The camera locations and angles are right out of the GoPro playbook but the cameras are anything but compact.

 

Entering the tunnel after setting the location made it feel like they were going to take you somewhere dark and unknown. Arriving on the other side reintroduced the world and thus forebode an emotional rollercoaster ride.

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IT WAS A FAST PACED SEQUENCE BUT OTHER THAN THE ENTRY TO AN EMPTY STATION AT THE END I SAW NOTHING THAT WOULD INDICATE "FILM NOIR". I'LL ADMIT I AM A NOVICE SO PLEASE DON'T THINK OF ME OF ANYTHING OTHER THAN A VERY BIG MOVIE FAN WANTING TO UNDERSTAND FILM NOIR. I'M HOPING TO UNDERSTAND FILM NOIR BY THE END OF THE 9 WEEK COURSE.  THE EMPTY STATION GRABBED MY ATTENTION. THE CONTRAST OF THE HUSTLE OF A TRAIN ENGINEER THAT STARTS THE FILM TO THE CALMNESS OF THE STATION AND THE END OF THE CLIP COULD BE A FILM NOIR TECHNIQUE.

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On the surface, the opening sequence is a study of men who know their jobs at work. It shows a harmonious relationship between the members of the crew operating the train, as in a Howard Hawks movie, an environment that will unexpectedly shift when the hero (Jean Gabin) witnesses the murder. Once arrived at Le Havre and off the train, the world becomes complicated and threatening. Film noir later expressed the idea that once away from our everyday life (as in 1949's D.O.A.), we are vulnerable to the unknown terrors lurking in the shadows. The hero of LA BETE HUMAINE departs his comfort zone, the train and his routine, and finds himself adrift in hostile waters. Fritz Lang picked up on this idea with his opening for the Hollywood remake, HUMAN DESIRE (1954), in which we see returned war veteran Glenn Ford slipping back into his routine as a train engineer with ease. As in the French original, it's his encounter with the belligerent yard boss (Broderick Crawford) that sends his life into a spiral that would become a familiar trap for noir protagonists.

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While I watched the clip, I felt the tension build as the assistant shoveled coal into the fire, the rumbling of the wheels and the sound of the whistle. I'm a big movie fan and don't understand film noir that much but hopefully by the end of this course I will.

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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...

Thank you for posting this clip from the silent film La roue. Very effective use of images to show the train speeding up. The clip makes me want to see the entire movie.

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