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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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I feel like this was the anti-M opening scene. There was loud noise, music, and not very much details given. I'm not sure who the two men are or where they're going. There are a couple of shots of complete darkness as the train passes some tunnels, which I thought was interesting. The build up of the music at the end gives the sense that this story really starts once the train pulls up to the station. Other than that, I'm not really sure what I can take from this scene. 

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La Bête Humaine (1938)

 

A train engineer falls in love with a married woman who has helped her husband commit a murder.

 

dir: Jean Renoir;

cast: Jean Gabin, Julien Carette, Simone Simon

uncredited adaption and dialogue: Jean Renoir

uncredited dialogue: Denise Leblond

 

   The noise is an uncomfortable sensation which becomes more bearable as eyes and ears begin to reason as a team.  Each discern a natural relationship of locomotion noise and speed.  The depiction of a real locomotive sets the tone of power, confidence, and the ability to control.

   The men in control of this noisy monster work as a team, one man in charge, the other in cooperation.  Each anticipates the other, helping in blind turns, or assisting the dumping of the ash pan over the water trough in the middle of the track.

  These are very capable, no nonsense guys who are professional, confident, and work well together.  An interesting part is the assistant who chain smokes.  His cigarette supply, apparently, is controlled by the Engineer.  Because that shot lingered, am wondering about the payoff later; it keeps me interested as to why it gets a lot of film, dimly lighted, while the locomotive barrels through a black tunnel.

   I note some tunnels are mere while one in particular is long.  I want this part to end because I can’t see, until there’s relief to see, light at the end of the tunnel.

   The noise in the blackness of that tunnel is all there is to life at that point, and, I don’t want this movies’ life to end that way.  But it probably will, maybe without sound heard.

   La Bete Humaine contributes literally the daylight contrast of the blackness of tunnels, coals, coal-faced men, white smoke that belches from black coal.  A fresh cigarette lighted from a burning used cigarette mimics the more dramatic fresh coal lighted from burning coal.  Contrasts of black and white, throughout the locomotion din, stress the sense that you cannot rest, and you must be alert as the film points of view do not tarry for the lingering mind.

   This a fast ride.

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A screaming train moving at a very high speed... Two dirty grimy smoking engineers...  Already quite an exhilarating opening shot.  I have not seen this film, but am looking forward to it!

Some of the camera shots seem very ahead of its time..  

 

The scene when the train disappears into the black tunnel - perhaps a foretelling of the future?

Love the shot of the light at the end of the tunnel fast approaching.. also foretelling? 

The guys seem pretty relaxed and comfortable with their jobs...  For some reason I kept expecting some sort of disaster or betrayal to happen.

And then the music starts.. Gradually making me feel a little excited - like we are reaching the destination!

But... still a little unsettled..  What is going to happen?

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This scene certainly is establishing a realistic feel to the film. Trains are usually romanticized on film but here we get almost a documentary like representation of the train operation. I'm not sure how this fits in with the rest of.the film but I found the setup intriguing. Who's on this train, how do they fit in the story. Also.the shot in the tunnel when the train is cloaked in darkness and then slowly emerges into light is very noir like and impressive. Perhaps a character will be making a long journey through darkness before themselves emerging into the light.

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If I had viewed this scene outside the context of a film noir course, I don't believe I would have associated it with the genre. However, trying to keep noir in mind while watching it, I did pick up on a few elements that contribute to the style. For example, the beautiful shadows cast by the train and tunnels of course stood out to me. The long, stretching black tracks on which the train moved also resembled a kind of shadow to me. The smoke billowing toward the end of the scene summoned images of cigarette smoke always present in the shadowy noir that I am more familiar with, although this was perhaps unintentional.

I was impressed by how much this opening scene communicated while lacking any dialogue!

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The first shot of fire filled maw with the 'scream' of the train (whistle?) is dark and disturbing (imagine that on the big screen rather than t.v. or computer screen - it would seem to engulf the viewer) , but it quickly becomes quite banal with the two men going about their business, lighting a cigarette calmly coordinating the control of the engine. However the duration of the sequence seems unrelenting, the train doesn't stop at any stations until the last. And the sound remains harsh, putting you on edge. Who are these people, why is the train not stopping, what's the urgency.... what is the train rushing from or to? The camera explores different points of view and the patterns and composition sustaining interest - the shot as the train passed over the squarish shaped mental bridge struck me as particlualry .... artistic. 

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Other than that, I'm not really sure what I can take from this scene. 

 

I think analyzing this scene will yield better results after you've seen the movie(which is fantastic and one you must DVR). You don't get a ton of plot information, but it perfectly sums up the overall tone of the movie, the friendship between the two men that doesn't require verbal communication, the stretches of darkness that are still puncuated by light and beauty, and the momentum of the train tracks taking you inevitably to your destination.

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Several aspects of this clip struck me. First, the opening shot is that of fire which signifies heat and potential danger as a whistle shrieks in a manner similar to a human yell. The combination is unnerving.

 

The train enters a tunnel and the viewer sees a blackened screen except for a small, nearly circular, vague image, as if to indicate that we cannot see what is head for us or the film's two characters. This is repeated as then train travels over a bridge, also with a distant end-of-a-tunnel effect as our view of what lies ahead is obstructed.

 

The sequence begins with the harsh sound of a whistle followed by only the sounds of the train's engine but concludes with a fully orchestrated musical selection as if to indicate we have made it. But to where? Will the two men who have been in control of the train until now retain control of their lives once they disembark?

 

I look forward to viewing this film for the first time on Friday.

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I have to say that I just love the fact that one of the engineers on the train is smoking. As if he is not getting enough smoke in his lungs already. We see the smoke "backdrafting" when the engineer opens the engine door, we see the smoke billowing from the train engine, we see the soot marks on the bridges the train passes, we even see a general smokiness/fog at the station the train pulls into at the end of the opening clip from the movie. We sometimes forget how prevalent smoke - and smoking was - in times past. We live in a time more reliant on hydro-electric, nuclear, solar, and wind power than the dirtier power of coal and diesel engines. But it is the gritiness of these types of energy and their effects on the environment that give some of film noir its noir - the darkness that is even reflected on the soot-covered faces of the engineers. With smoking, a film noir staple, becoming more and more socially unacceptable, we recognize that some of the standard backdrop and characterizations that make a film noir, noir, are difficult to establish in modern films (even Bladerunner, with its smoking "detective" is over 30 years old). This is one of the reasons I am most looking forward to this course - to connect to the films that defined an age that we might only be able to appreciate now that it is gone.

 

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Some of the things I noticed were how the film opens with a shot of fire. A reference to hell, as noir is asociated with the underworld, or criminal element. It felt as if the train was a person (there was even a train POV) and the tracks were "life."   Life has it's curves and near misses. It has it's dark times (tunnels) and stretches where the end is in sight. I also noticed the nondiegetic music didn't begin until around the 3:10 mark. The music's pace kept with that of the train's. and the cresendos were during the whistles, and finally the journey comes to a slow end like a long life.

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We can create and harness complex technologies, but who becomes the master?  With its opening scenes, Renoir’s La Bete Humaine  makes a potent statement about modernity/progress and its mixed blessings. Consider the dark title, which means “The Human Beast.” With echos of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Renoir points directly at the delicate balance between creator and monster, an issue even more relevant in our nuclear world.

 

Stylistically, we are unnerved by sustained anxiety, extremes of dark and light, raucous sound, unusual camera angles, abrupt cuts, and unique points of view, but equally significant is the way these disparate elements are melded: an authentic visual artist is at the helm. As the son of Pierre August Renoir, the famed Impressionist painter, Jean Renoir, from birth, was at the nexus of the avant garde.  He was doubtless aware of Futurism, the short-lived but important art movement of the 1920s that glorified speed, technology, motion, and even violence.  Futurist themes are pervasive in this film’s opening.  

 

With the screech of the train whistle, La Bete Humaine’s initial scenes are an interesting counterpoint to Lang’s “M.” Here, we are not lulled into alarm; we are shaken. No passive observers, we are hapless passengers aboard a clattering mechanical monster.  And it is in full control, with the engineers mere functionaries. They scramble to feed its fiery mouth, fiddle with the  widgets on a windowless wall and attempt to pacify themselves with cigarettes.

 

Renoir heightens the sense of helplessness and anxiety by interspersing passenger-POV shots of the train careening through impossibly narrow tunnel openings, past other trains and narrow bridges with interior shots of the engineers popping their heads out the side windows. On this train, rubber-neck at your own risk.

 

All the while, the relentless sounds of massive machinery dominate. In an embodiment—or perhaps the source—of the “light at the end of the tunnel” metaphor, the train enters utter darkness for long seconds, then, like an answered prayer, a tiny light appears.  As the train races around an absurdly sharp curve,  triumphant orchestral music rises. The train slows, then stops. Le Havre. Silence and safety.  We made it, despite the train’s best efforts to destroy us.  Or were we just being neurotic? This is The Twilight Zone, after all. 

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The camera angles gives us a rich depth of field almost a three dimensional, realistic effect.  This kind of camera positioning highlights the difference between 2D photography or painting and motion pictures which are also 2D but can create the illusion of 3D.

 

There is no dialogue, only a sparse few words.  Conversation is not necessary to convey the meaning of the scene, of what the men are doing.  The scene plays out in images only which is a pure cinematic technique.

 

The conductors are dirty, sweat-stained working class men - a staple of film noir.  These men do not seem like actors but more like real people.  They are certainly not Fred Astair in a tuxedo!

 

The scene captures the gritty realism of everyday working life which is a common theme in film noir.  This is not heightened reality or fantasy.  Renoir is using the artificial medium of film to create the illusion of real life.

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I thought that editing was well done and really contributed to the realistic aspects. As noted in my twitter post (@rockongdw), the opening scene of La Bete Humaine seemed realistic, except when the second conductor pokes his head out of the train with a cigarette and it didn’t budge. If the cigarette had flow away or he had taken it out of his mouth that it would have improved the realness of scene.

 

The immediate screaming of the train at the opening was quite alarming, as was the hold and darkness of scene when the train enters the tunnel as the second conductor lights his next cigarette off of his first. The suspense there was very well done. However, as I noted in another twitter post, I thought that the upbeat music and light at the end of the tunnel it brightened up the scene. It made me think that perhaps I was reading too much into the scene or applying my own fears of an old train being driven by smoking and drinking conductors, screaming down a dark tunnel.

 

 

I also appreciated the non-verbal communication between the conductors, but I was confused by the actions when the lead conductor gestured to the other for what seemed like a drink and the second conductor didn't provide one and instead the second performed a task (engaged  the whistle or something), and after that, the second conductor seemed to be asking for his drink (after a job well done), and the lead gave him another smoke.

 

So despite the excellent editing, as I was a bit more confused by some of the elements of the opening scene and the elements did not resonate as noir to me, I would have to say that I was not as intrigued to continue watching this film, as I was with M

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Noir films are usually fatalistic in tone and frequently use visual symbolism to create a sense of the inexorability of fate.  One technique for symbolizing this is through continuous movement through the frame, often in a consistent direction.  This unstoppable movement conjures a sense of inevitability.  We are passengers moving relentlessly towards something we cannot avoid: the destiny of our protagonist.

Both today's clip and yesterday's display this technique, masterfully and subtly employed.

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Train barrelling down the track = Fate.. Can't fight it. What's more it isn't obvious to the characters - just another day on the job. "But wait...there's more."

The triumphful music as they reach the station suggests it was the successful end of a perilous journey. You get a sense of things ending when they are just beginning.

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In addition to the above observations I felt the appearance of the engineers - their smudged faces, eyes hidden behind sooty goggles and filthy uniforms - as well as their silent communications through facial and body gestures emphasized a grittiness and an almost conspiratorial atmosphere supporting noir in general. The speed of the train and the suspense associated with the engineers' activities for switching the tracks create an immediate tension in the viewer that may reflect the tension yet to come.

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The only thing that I can ask myself after watching the scene, and meditating on it... were the different views from outside the train to represent hostages being taken into that town? Hmmm... just a thought... anyways, just like yesterday, the simplicity of the scene is what stands out to me. It was just 2 conductors on a train, going from what seemed to be a beautiful country side, into a town where things seemed a bit unsettling. 

 

The shots of the train really stood out with the angles and the camera movements. Like I mentioned before, it is as if there are people tied to the train, looking at this city come into view, as it appears scary, and uneasy. The sounds of the gears, and wheels on the track, and whistles made the unknown so profound. Those little things really made the opening stand out, and be important to the contributions to the genre. What an opening! 

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I enjoyed the feeling of "driving" the train. The speed and power are undeniable from this angle. The dirt and sweat and the monotony of their jobs is hard to misinterpret. I have never seen this movie.

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Fully agree with the danger of the opening shot of the flames but I also wanted to say that as some others have mentioned, it seems like the intended effect was more than danger- it was the idea of damnation or hell. The documentary style of this shot and the opening in general (and perhaps the entire film, since I've never seen it) serve to provide images that still seem "real" in the sense that the viewer could stumble upon that exact thing at any given time in the world at large. As a result, the way the film is understood may be shifted a little compared to how the same viewer would process a film that is undeniably fictional (I.E. Bladerunner, to use an example that's popped up in this discussion for othe reasons).

La Bete Humaine (or at least its opening) contributes to the film noir style by using documentary filming techniques to photograph a scenario that seems like it could come flying off the rails at any second but is still held together by the conductors who are as cool as cucumbers doing what seems to other like a chaotic job. From what I've seen, this influence will come into play through films using a series of back and forth shots (interior vs. exterior in this case) to build a feeling of anxiety and mild confusion in the viewer.

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Very nice observations. The fire/hell reference in the first shot is great, I'm glad you Film401 pointed it out. The gritty appearance of the engineers is also helpful to note, SGA3349, thank you for the insight!

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In today's clip, the first thing we see are flames, as the camera pulls back from the engine firebox. Are we emerging from hell? Will we return there? Am I overthinking this?

 

Beyond that, the rest of the opening takes place mostly in daylight (with occasional dives into solid black tunnels) so the lighting isn't necessarily ominous (though the changes indicate we may be taking some dark detours).

 

What is ominous is the overwhelming drive and sound of the train, reducing the "humaine" engineer and assistant into begrimed beings who don't even communicate by language and seem to exist only to serve the machine.

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the general consensus is the opening shot is like an opening or portal to Hell. However what struck me about the clip was the grime and grit and how the engineers were covered with soot. This is more than just accuracy of what it is like to be a train engineer. To me, it symbolizes in the noir world that there are no pure good guys, there are just bad guys, and comparatively worse guys.

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No one, that I could find, mentioned the tension of dropping the water scoop into the trough between the rails and getting it back up before the end of the trough was reached.

That was the vertical rod-like item the fireman lifted and then lowered when the engine driver gave the "end of trough" signal. The viewer can see the water trough between the rails before and after on both lines.

This system allowed the high speed train to take on water without stopping. It also could present a problem if the scoop was not raised by the end of the trough.

I will admit this is an item about which only steam locomotive aficionados might know.

-30-

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