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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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The "Dark Touches" are added by shots, sounds, and techniques as:

The opening shot:   A close-up inside the furnace coupled with a hissing, burn like sound.

I am told this story is about HEAT ... PASSION.

The eye-level view at the base of the train wheels.  I think of the train as the main character.  Hence, the story will travel into the base or darker parts of man's existence. 

The contrast of lighting of the two conductors as well as their clothing. 

The main conductor has stains all over his clothing, while the second man does not.

Inside the dark tunnel, the lighting is focused on the main conductor, highlighting these stains.

In contrast, the second man is barely lit - almost completely hidden in the dark.

The on-coming train:  Does it represent another character that the main character will come up against?  Or perhaps the main character will be ad odds with two parts of its character: one cast in light, the other in dark (like the conductors).  

 

The opening suggests to me that I am being told the entire film in this brief train ride.

The train always travels with and in the shadows of its own smoke.  

The last shot: the train pulling into La Havre station.  This station feels worse than the entire train ride.
As if the movie says:  A story is told, a mystery solved.  Yet, one never leaves the world of film noir

 

 

 

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- The train travelling draws you in more and more as the train proceeds.  The engineer's compartment is not the standard setting for murder and/or inrtigue, so my curiosity increased as the Engineers' duties contnued.

- Despite the daylight hours, dark touches are achieved by having zero dialogue until 2 min 20 seconds into the sequence (and said dialogue was minimal); the various noises of the train changed with and within shots--once a sound became white noise, it changed abruptly; going from daylight into a dark tunnel was a contributing factor.  After these "normal" things continued for a period of time, tension occured and increased. The music snuck in almost imperceptibly and increased in volume as the train approached its destination.  The empty train station definitely set the hook and was almost a shock.

- This opening uses a daily situation/activity for a setting danger which is seen in other films such as "Stranger On A Train"

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Like life, this train is going full speed to an unknown.  The engineers (and passengers) expect it to arrive at the station, but as in life, we cannot be assured of that.  There was a lack of control from the sense that the train was moving too fast at times, faster than is safe. I wondered if they would make the station, or would they stop in time, would something appear on the track, perhaps another train? 

I found the wordless communication between the engineers interesting and wonder if/how it relates to the rest of the film.  

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I am in no way an experienced film reviewer but I thought that it appeared as if the train were going too fast but yet the engineers seemed calm, by lighting a cigarette for a smoke.  I felt that when they went through the tunnel and it was pitch black that something catastrophic could happen, and then it appeared that the train heading the other way would hit them dead on.  I think they may have done that on purpose with the camera angle.  I thought that having the film go completely black in tunnel and only having the screeching sounds was pretty innovative for the time this was made.  

I actually got a little bored with the white noise of the train and since nothing else happened in the clip it isn't on my list to see right away.

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What I found most interesting about this opening scene is how it is almost shot like a documentary yet it is documenting the action of the train more so than any human experience. Of course, this is a means of portraying a human experience which seems to be impending, presumably a train crash of some sort. The machine is shown as powerful and fast and its noise blocks out any dialogue that may be exchanged between the train conductors. The train seems to be rushing ahead, almost uncontrollably so. I think it's interesting that we are never shown the riders or people inside the train. Again, like in the opening scene of M, depicting absence is equally as effective as showing the event/act/person in question.

I also liked the darkness shot during the tunnel passing. It creates a sort of tension and suspense in addition to the anxiety which has been building with the force of the train rushing ahead even though the station draws nearer. By documenting the force of the train we as viewers are left feeling a bit helpless as we watch an industrial power that while being fueled by humans, seems much stronger than any human force. Thus the director places the viewer and audience as passive spectator rather than active voyuer.

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It seems to me that the realism of this sequence is what differs it from the regular fiction movies of its era. The train movement is almost documental, and for me this reflects the dirctor's eye on the inevitability of things. The two man on the train can control its speed by minor adjustments, but the tracks are the element which decide its destination. And on the meanwhile we have tunels, bridges and many elements that make our journey different each time. The dark moments of the clip are an analogy for the dark moments of ourselves, in our own lives.

 

I will watch the entire movie later, but I think all of that misc-en-scéne of the beginning just reflects the posterior state of things of the characters. Like the train, there are dark moments in our lives and there's nothing we can do about it. We're just passengers.

 

Jean Renoir is one of the best of its era and one of the most important names of French cinema. "La Règre Du Jeu", from 1939, is just memorable (not noir).

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There are some shots and sounds that strike me as influential on the noir look.  The first is that hard open with a screech and fire.  The shot quickly reveals what is happening, but for a few seconds it is an ominous opening.  Also, at 1:20 when the train goes into a tunnel and everything is black (the sound remains); there is a slow build back into the light.  This scene lacks the glamor that I associate with film noir, but certainly contains a great deal of grit.  Also, with the sounds and the high speed, everything feels dangerous and almost fragile, however, when the scene cuts to the men on the train, they seem totally in control of everything.  This reminded of how noir detectives are consistently teetering on the edge emotionally, yet remain in control.

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Before we even know where we are, all that we see is a gaping, fiery, mouth. All that we hear is the scream of the steam whistle. Only when we see the engineers shoveling coal into it do we get a sense that we are not actually in hell. As the train races through the countryside it seems like a force of nature, or a rampaging monster barely kept in check by the efforts of the engineers. The train is imbued with a relentless sense of inevitability.

 

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The engineers in the opening of La Bete Humaine never feel like they're in charge of their destiny. They can't hear or speak to each other, and they usually can't even see where they're going. They perform actions which are presumably intended to affect the train in some way, although the audience doesn't learn how. They're effectively helpless passengers in a mad experience of noise and heat, hanging on as the train plunges into blackness or squeezes by trains going the other direction. When the braking process begins, there's no immediate feedback that it's working, so they have to just hold on and trust to fate. The sense of being tied to events that are out of your control is something that comes up in a lot of film noir, as people start schemes that they can't manage once they're going.

 

As a side note, I like that one of the engineers takes time out to chain-smoke. Just like the train!

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This opening sequence from Jean Renoir's "La Bete Humaine" takes us, and the two engineers on a convoluted ride, much as Brigitte O'Shaughnessy does to Sam Spade in the Maltese falcon. In the first shot we see only flames, implying that someone will be thrown from the frying pan into the fire. In place of snappy dialogue the two men communicate non-verbally, and like so many of our film noir protagonists they seem to know what to do and how to do it. As the train enters a tunnel I am reminded of the many "black outs" in later noirs, when the PI is either drugged, knocked unconscious or lead astray of the thread of clues. As the train arrives at its destination we hear an almost triumphant, Mazurka-like score, as if everything is or will be resolved. The use of the train sets up a sense of purpose for these two characters. The camera fixed on the exterior of the engine gives us a sense of speedand danger, and Jean Gabin's non-chalance as he rides with his head sticking out of the engine implies experience. He knows it's dangerous but he has survived it again and again without consequence, just as Phillip Marlowe or Mike Hammer can handle "a slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45"

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The tight shot of the flames that pulls back to the bright, loud world rushing past the train lends itself to this overall feeling of imminent self-destruction that is palpable. 

 

 

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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?


Film noir, in my opinion, shows the gritty, hard and dangerous side of life. Life may seem to flow on effortlessly without much provocation or help, but underneath the facade, it gets rough, dark and mistakes can be fatal. Using a train itself is a symbol of progress and strength. Goods or people are being delivered from one destination to another. It's made of hard, dark metal, & only a derailment or some very intricate brakes can stop it's procession; such as life. To keep this train going fast and smooth along the track it takes skilled conductors, with expert timing and an innate sense of communication without words. Just like the darkness of film noir, making a mistake can be hazardous to your health. The noises are loud, the conditions are dark, hot, because of the coal-eating steam engine, and windy, because they have to stay alert, always checking for any obstacles on the track. Everyone in a film noir has to watch out for road blocks. Going through an actual tunnel depicts literal darkness, you don't see all that's happening, but you cannot stop & must stay vigilant, even more so. Only when the station is in sight, does the mood lighten up, just a little; the anticipation is that there is more to come, the train will come to it's destination, it's purpose revealed, but, still, must remain alert, because timing is everything. Your only choices are to get off, get on or remain, holding on, remaining alert all the while.


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The track and journey of the train can be seen as fate, this train is travelling fast and onto its destination it carries its cargo. It does take skilled engineers to drive the train onto its destination and they do this unquestionably, making slight adjustments to the working of the train. It has a life of its own, nothing can hold it back.

 

Some of the best shots are in darkness when the train moves through the tunnels, this darkness envelopes the train, the engineers and the train's

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You begin with seeing the fire that powers the train and you end at the platform at the end of its journey. Everything about this opening shows you are going somewhere I think the lack of dialogue is meant to draw you into the journey and the music almost creates a nervousness of where you are going to end up. I found myself looking at the edges of the screen for things that are out of place more and more as the music became darker.

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The opening scene is explosive. It immediately awakens all of our senses of sight and sound to a riveting train's screeching whistle as it charges down the tracks. We get a sense of how fast it is going from the sound of steel and metal grinding together as if, we ,too, were riding along with the conductor/engineer and the pounding of these metals could be felt beneath our feet. The urgency for the train to reach its destination at a specific time is depicted in the scene where one of the two men on board, open the belly of the engine to a firey inferno feeding it coal propelling it's force of speed to hurl continuously onward as each meticulously attend to every detail of its operation ensuring it will reach its destination as planned. A dark feeling of uncertainty is generated by a darkened entry into a tunnel,and men communicating to each other by a sort of sign language they are privee to. This type of communication further deepens feelings of exclusion as if to purposefully make one feel as though we do not have control over our destiny. The culmination of each camera shot up to this point can be akin to putting the audience in an amnesiatic state of mind questioning who they are;where they come from;and where are they going?

However, the light at the end of the tunnel,upbeat tempo of music, appearance of more houses along the way provides some sense of hope, or even a possibility of finding answers to the many questions we have wondered about...when the train actually STOPS in the depot we get the feeling that whatever we are leaving behind...whatever we are searching for...WHATEVER IT IS...the journey will end or begin....HERE...

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I have yet to watch the entirety of La Bete Humaine, but from just this short opening clip I can already foresee that this movie is a prime example of masterful storytelling. Not a word was uttered in the four and a half minutes but so much was shared, between the two men on screen and with the audience. It was intriguing, and left me curious to see where the storyline would lead. 

 

I honestly know nothing more about the movie than what this Daily Dose has informed me, but I was struck by the unusual camera angles and the use of light and dark within the shots... this felt very noir to me, even if the subject matter wasn't your typical run-of-the-mill noir selection. I especially felt that the dark tunnels with the pinhole lens effect was most inspiring of the darker side of noir, and helped set that feel and those emotions as I watched the clip. 

 

 

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The scene that jumped out at me the most was, I think, the one where the train goes into the tunnel. I loved how the train was in total darkness except for the light at the end of the tunnel. That seems like great metaphor for some of the storylines that come up in noir later on. The sound of the train clanging against the tracks and the whistle are also pretty big later on in the film noir style. What I mean by that is the fact that a lot of later film noirs that involve trains use these sounds to build up anticipation on what will happen next. The scene from "Double Indemnity" where they throw the husband off the train and onto the tracks comes to mind. I loved seeing how trains operate and even the conductors gave me an uneasy feeling that something was going to happen later on. I think it was the way that they glanced at each other and their gestures while doing their work. It made me wonder if they were going to derail the train or something. 

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The technical backstory is what fascinated me while watching this clip.  Knowing another train was pushing the one shown at 60 mph, the camera and tunnel wall collision, and the actors learned how to operate a train - These are what drew my attention.

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The opening scene of La bete humaine is, on its surface, more cinema verite than film noir, but certainly contains elements of both. The sleek sexuality of noir is absent, but there are (literally) flashes of heavy chiaroscuro as the train in this sequence hurtles in and out of tunnels. The diagonal ironwork of the bridges foreshadow the iconic Venetian blinds of later masterpieces like Double Indemnity. The twin structures of the terminus reach out for the viewer with an inescapable embrace. And throughout, there is a sense that the engineers are feeding the train as cogs in a system over which they have very little say. This links them directly to the detectives to come, the detectives who also know their world well enough to navigate it, but who are ultimately subject to its whims. The engineers are largely blind to what's coming ahead, but behave almost instinctively on a familiar path. The detectives understand the way their world operates; that knowledge hones their survival instinct, which in turn becomes their primary defense against that same world.

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As I revisit yet another Daily Dose, I'd like to add to my initial thoughts. I was about to come here to ask if the two railroad workers were indeed real-life workers, but I just read that they were established French actors. But that's just how real the scene AND their performance looks. Not necessarily very noir-ish, but certainly a healthy dose of realism.

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