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Screenfiend

Daily Dose of Darkness #2 The Arrival of a Train (The Opening Scene of La Bete Humaine)

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So many excellent posts on this topic!  I agree re the danger expressed by the hurtling train, the shrieking whistle, the narrow escapes thru the tunnels.  

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Just to add in my two cents. I enjoyed the feeling of uncertainty and danger evoked by the darkness of the tunnels. I also appreciated the level of communication between the engineers, the train's too loud to actually talk so their routine must performed without flaw. I also noticed that both engineers seemed very experienced with the job, their functions seemed almost automatic, like they are apart of the train themselves.

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How is this an important part of Film Noir?  Hurtling towards danger.  Rough, jumbled landscapes. The feeling  you should trust the person next to you, but wondering what could go wrong.  Black tunnels reminding one of death.  The coming to the station...which is always located on the "wrong side of the tracks."  

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The camera side and front angles invite the audience to feel like they are passengers on the train and are personally experiencing a continuous fear of doom.

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La Bete Humaine:

First impression: This opening sequence is very powerful and dynamic.  The cinematography is amazing.  I love that we see the movement of the train and it’s path from the engineers perspective.  The long front of the engine barreling to it’s destination.  You feel the power and movement of the train.  The powerful music finally comes in as the train reaches it’s destination and stops.  The music adds the excitement of finally arriving to the station.  We know that this is going to be some ride!

 

So it opens with the screech of the whistle and a view of the fire, you feel the excitement, the controlled danger (fire is always dangerous even in a controlled setting).  The camera pans back so we see the whole cab of the train and the men working.  There are shots of the wheels turning, the sound of the engine, the train flying by us, the men working to keep the train moving, going down the tracks, entering a tunnel that goes to black, the men working, the train, going black again, emerging from the black tunnel into the light, the bridge, the train passing, etc.  All add to the feeling of movement, that this is something special.

 

1. The film’s realistic depiction adds excitement, movement, anticipation for what comes next.  The feeling that we are destine for an important adventure. 

 

2. Opening with fire could foreshadow danger.  The blackout in the tunnel adds a dark feeling that there could be danger ahead.  If fact, as I watch the opening, the idea crossed my mind that the train could derail.  The empty station is also interesting.  Why is the station empty of people?  Is there a problem in this town?

 

3. I would say that the opening is not what I would have considered film noir but I have not seen the rest of the movie.  What could be considered is the foreshadowing of things to come … and that does not seem to be good (as designated by the empty station).

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The tunnels weren't just dark - they were pitch black.  Nothing to be seen.

The camera angles showed the lack of view of the engineer and fireman.  They can see nothing ahead of them on the tracks, unless they put their heads out the window.  And to do that, they must put on safety goggles.  Danger ahead?

What impressed me most, however, wasn't the visuals of the scene, but the sounds.  This train does not sound "friendly" - no rhythmic chuffing, but a constant whining, with the occasional shriek of the whistle.

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What an opener - the close-up of the fire in the tinder box, the screech of the train whistle! Jars the nerves which are kept humming by the dark tunnel, the camera shots from the front of the train and the music which seems to match the speed of the train.

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After an extremely positive reaction to M, La Bete Humaine didn't really work so well for us.

 

It can be hard to view these films as they would have been seen at the time, of course, and filter out all the we have seen that came after it. Perhaps part of my problem is that we watched it right after M, which felt new and innovative in spite of its age.

 

The opening was probably quite interesting and thrilling at release, and, metaphorically, it suggests a kind of inevitability, which is a common feeling and theme in noir. Unfortunately, I found it overlong and not all that inspiring.

 

I largely found the camera work to be fairly disinteresting. It particularly jumped to mind in the dancing scene, where a static camera stood in place for a long time, and I thought about what a Fritz Lang or even a Hitchcock would do with a scene like that...

 

The story had moments that I enjoyed, but not enough to rise above what was just an adequate story, for me.

 

Anyway, I am glad to have seen the film, but it left me feeling fairly cold, and I can't imagine revisiting it.

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Because I saw "M" directly before this, I think I saw it in the context of a man with a deep compulsion for destruction trying to maintain his sanity. As a result, the train (that in and of itself is a compelling tactile force on many levels) really does become his "wife" in the way it guides his compulsivity into a singular focus (or perhaps a kind of mantra as with "M"'s whistling?).

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The opening scene of the train in La Bete Humaine is thrilling in the same way that Life is thrilling whenwe're on a new adventure. This scene can be interpreted as a metaphor for life. We are hurtling ever forward, mostly expecting positive things. Suddenly, there is darkness in front of us; it is an unknown for those of us who have never traveled down this road before. The sound of the train, the screeching of the whistle, the blackness of the tunnel. We escape from the darkness after a brief period and see our destination approaching. We breathe a sigh of relief because we believe that we are safe. We are at Le Havre - the harbor -- a place of safety. What more could happen as we let down our guard, believing that we have left all there is to fear behind us.

 

Some of the aspects of film noir in this opening scene of La Bete Noir are the use of sound -- the screeching of the train and its whistle, both of which can startle, warn, or strike fear in the unsuspecting soul. The juxtaposition of light and dark contrasts these symbols of good and evil and the unexpectedness of evil in life. The engineers are experienced in running the train. They aren't phased by any of the new things the viewers' eyes are seeing. It is just a routine run, but not so for the innocent audience.

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This is tough, dirty work. These men appear to be controlling the train, but to me it feels more like they are serving the machine. The train dwarfs the engineers as it hurtles along on the rails. How much can they really control this beast at the rate of speed they are traveling ? They have to poke their heads out just to see what is ahead and if there was any problem they would have little time to react. They have to adapt to the machine so much that they must communicate non-verbally as that is all the screaming train will allow.  I felt helpless and exposed until the train slowed and entered the station.    

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La Bete Humaine used several POV shots, but they were always outside of the train. This made me feel as if I were hanging to the side of the train, about to loose my grip and fall. Every time the train went under an arch, or through a tunnel, I ducked feeling as if my head were about to hit the bricks. When the second train approaches from the opposite direction I thought the two trains would collide. I felt powerless, and I wondered how much control the conductors had over the train. It seemed as if the train were a bull and the two conductors were only trying to hang on. When the train started the final turn, it seemed like it was going too fast. I felt as the train would derail. 

 

The train is the perfect metaphor for the world of noir. The life of each noir character is moving too fast to control. They have no control on where they end up, only on how fast they get there. At any moment their life could derail, or they might get thrown from the ride.

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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.

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I love any shots/scenes of heavy industry.  The movement, the steam/smoke, the workers covered in grime.  It’s all very cinematic.  The opening of Jean Renoir’s “La Bete Humaine” creates a rock solid and believable portrayal of two train engineers.  Shot in a gritty, realistic manner, the scene establishes the power of a steam engine and, by the manner they go about their business, the serious professionalism of the engineers.  It reminds me of Burt Lancaster in John Frankenheimer’s, “The Train.”  There’s a raw beauty and glamour to this near silent film scene, where the engineers communicate in sign language against the loud sounds of the train, track, tunnels and whistles.  It parallels the heist scenes in “Rififi” and “The Asphalt Jungle.”

 

The shot where the train enters the tunnel parallels the darkness of night, both exterior and interior in many film noir movies.  The viewer fills in information when much of the scene is in darkness, especially when watching the second engineer light the cigarette.  What you can’t see becomes as or more important than what you can see.

 

Thanks - Mark

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The opening scene of La Bete Humaine was fast-paced and realistic. The POV shots made me feel as if I was actually on a train ride. We see that the conductors are 1) experienced and 2) have a sense of trust in each other. Film noir is often fast-paced and full of twists and turns much like a train ride. The screeching sounds of the train against the track made me feel a little uneasy, but I couldn't find much darkness in this opening scene. It almost makes me think that there is something sinister that us as viewers know nothing about. I also enjoyed the triumphant music that played as the train pulled into the station. I felt a sigh of relief and accomplishment on the behalf of the conductors as the train pulled into the station without a problem.

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To add my two cents of quasi-Marxist-existentialist perspective, the steam-powered locomotive is the culmination of both the financial and technological developments of the Industrial Revolution.  A fearsome, powerful machine, it nonetheless requires the connivance of human agents to run.  In exchange for their "cooperation," the engineers make a living and enjoy a status above that of most of the working class.  Nonetheless, they are but parts of the machine and ride with the train along its tracks and through its tunnels without any influence upon its direction other than to stop it altogether in the event of an emergency.  The grime-covered engineers themselves are reduced to most rudimentary forms of communication, and their every motion is devoted to the maintenance of the fire within their infernal machine.  They technically are not slaves but free, but they have exchanged that freedom to maintain the machine to the fate of which they are bound in a most literal sense.

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Certain elements of the opening of La Bête Humaine that share elements of Film Noir:

 

First, the film title, the feminine form of, the human beast. In some Film Noir, the darkest, most evil character is a woman, a femme fatale, ie, Rebecca, Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd, Detour.

 

Second, the opening shot is a close-up of an enclosed inferno, a hellish image. The camera then pulls back a bit to reveal we are in the open engine area of a train barreling down a track. We feel we are standing next to the two engineers, both somewhat dehumanized by grimy, blackened faces and especially one man who wears silvery goggles obscuring his eyes. Accompanying these opening images are the deafening sounds of the train in motion. The men cannot converse as civilized men, but must gesture or yell to communicate. Our introduction to the film's world and characters is discomforting, usually the case in a Film Noir.

 

As we are swept at breakneck speed along the single track we suddenly enter into the utter darkness of tunnels, or come face to face with another train barreling toward us, or pass through a bleak, deserted, ugly industrial area before pulling up to an imposing, empty looking building. A sign has told us we are entering, Le Harve, a port city. As the train enters the station it is easy to wonder, what will we find at our first destination? Where are we going? Traveling fast in an unknown, bleak landscape is often a part of the setting of the Film Noir. While we don't know all the particulars of where we are going we are set to feel it will not go well. Film Noir, indeed.

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It was amazing to be able to feel the through almost all the senses the smell, taste, sound ,sight, etc of the mechanics of the train in motion. Without even fully understanding every motion of their actions and touch it was an orchestrated performance of skill,strength,patience and brute human force that could still control this this massive force of metal,steel and heat.

Even with the background of steel,smoke, dials, levers, tracks etc these men show even greater strength and skill.

In respects to the genre I wasn't sure if reaching the destination was to be of relief or apprehension!

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I liked how the scene opens with a scream. Albeit a mechanized one, but still a scream from a beast. Shrill akin to that of a woman. 

 

The attention to the different angles shot of the machine (train) gives a human-like quality to the subject being viewed.   Creates more interest in viewing the train as a character instead of just a machine.

 

The only humans viewed in the opening are inside the train.  They communicate only in gestures instead of speech. This makes them less human-like, as we see more of the train and the train surroundings than of the humans themsellves. Also, the platform we finally see at the end of the clip is devoid of humans.  This gives it a cold, steely feel as again we see more machine than human coming into the track. 

 

We don't hear music until coming into the station area.  The only other accompaniment we hear is the sound of the train, again downplaying the supremicy of humans vs. machines.  Even before the music is mixed in, it is presidented by another scream from the engine. 

 

In the opening of this scene, we start with a shot of the lifeblood of the machine, the coal chute and the living fire that gives the machine it's power.  Again downplaying the supremicy of humans vs machines. There is so much motion surrounding the machines (trains) whereas to make the humans featured look almost sluggish.

 

I think the portrayal of the machines as living beings being so prominantly featured is in itself unsettling, as we all want to believe that human beings are the most supreme form of life there is on Earth.

 

Lovely use of darkness and shadows to create an ominus feel to this opening scene!

 

 

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Since La Bete Humaine is a relatively early sound film, I was taken by Jean Renoir's use of sound -- the "shorthand" verbal signals between the conductor and engineer, the very loud sounds of the train on the tracks, the lack of music until the train pulls into LeHavre.  While it wasn't a foreboding opening (like "M"), it was a tense opening.  I actually thought something might happen to them when they took brief looks away from what was in front of them!  I didn't think that the opening had much of a sense of a film noir, except for the sharp contrast of the conductor and engineer's faces against the background.  Later in the film, I saw more early precursors (night shots, voiceovers), but not much in the opening.

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These two men know each other, work together and trust each other.  You just know something is going to happen to test or break the relationship and it will most likely be a woman.  The train is Lantier.

 

They like each other and depend on each other for their pay and their lives every day.  That's an intense relationship so the story is going to be just as intense.  The train speeding and then slowing down to pull into the station is symbolic of the high point of the movie and then the ending.

 

 

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The movie starts with an extended shot of realism. A POV we rarely see in 1930s American cinema.

 

A slow open yet it starts with a scream. We are tense, on high alert - what's happened? Oh, it's just the train whistle. The inferno - what happening? Oh, it's the train's boiler.

 

The two men are working the train silently - what's going to happen to the smoker? Oh, nothing. They work well together. They are two well-oiled cogs in the big train machine.

 

What are we seeing, looking for down that track? Will one of those people fall in front? Will something come from the other train? No. This is a big powerful beast and it is aggressively moving towards its destination.

 

Oh, a tunnel! Now what will happen? Will there be only one engineer left on the other side? No. All is well, they share a cigarette. They are convivial, simpatico.

 

All the while the sound surrounds us, penetrates our senses. We feel the strong wind in their face, the filth on their face, the bone-rattling roar. It rubs our senses raw. Our emotions seesaw from tension to release.

 

We are pulling into Le Havre - the haven - where we begin to get respite from the noise, the hurtling forward. 

 

But what awaits us at the station?

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The work of a train engineer was hard, there's no doubt about it. It was dirty, noisy and dangerous. But the speed itself was fascinating and thrilling. You can see a flick of madness in their eyes, while they're riding this steel beast. Maybe they treated it like men treat their cars - like a femme who gives you a hell of a ride, but can also cost you a fortune. This locomotive is a femme fatale, sort of ;) The engine can drive you to a desired destination, smoothly... It can also drive you the bitter end. There's crazy speed, dirt, passion, strength. This opening scene gives you a certain thrill, intrigues. Jean Gabin's face says it all... It's a dynamic, ideal and silent cooperation between the 2 drivers. They're calm, confident, strong. The strength and reliability of a machine. The music is vivid and those 2 men seem to be like 2 cowboys riding a steel horse through the prairie. Working class heroes and the power of modern technology.

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