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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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If the German roots of film noir take us back to Expressionism, its French roots can be found in the poetic realism movement in French cinema of the 1930’s.  In the opening sequence of La bête humaine, Renoir achieves cinematic poetry through the artful editing of dynamic location footage with what appears to me to be studio footage of the engineer’s cabin to portray working-class men going about their important daily job.  We begin with a close-up shot of the raw energy of the fire beneath the boiler.  At 0:17 we see the powerful wheels of the locomotive and then a side view of the whole locomotive, showing how the elemental energy of the fire is being translated into the mechanical energy to drive the train.  This is followed by a shot of the entire train rushing by, showing that is principally a passenger train carrying people where they need to go, serving a useful function for society.  Now we return to the locomotive and the two engineers who are responsible for safely controlling all this power and delivering the passengers to their destination.

 

These are working-class men who carry out their work in a physically challenging environment where throughout this portion of the opening sequence are entirely diegetic, helping the viewer to appreciate the work environment of the two engineers; it is not until the train crosses a bridge as it approaches the city of Le Havre that a non-diegetic heroic-sounding musical soundtrack begins to shape the mood of the arrival.  The lighting is naturalistic throughout.  The engineers’ cabin is illuminated in the dark tunnel by a lantern swinging overhead.  The shot that begins at 1:29 as entirely black is gradually revealed, as the train emerges from the tunnel, to be the same static shot used through much of this opening sequence to show the view that would be seen by the engineer played by Julien Carette looking forward along the left side of the locomotive.  The bridge-crossing sequence beginning at 2:39 and to some extent the arrival at the train station seem to me to be proto-noir in the aesthetics of the interplay of light and shadow created by the patterns of modern utilitarian construction.  If I am not mistaken, there is even water standing on the flat surfaces between the tracks on the bridge and reflecting daylight from above.

 

Renoir’s gritty, working-class realism points forward to the post-war realistic trend of film noir as described by Paul Schrader in his seminal “Notes on Film Noir”:  “The realistic movement also suited America’s post-war mood; the public’s desire for a more honest and harsh view of America would not be satisfied by the same studio streets they had been watching for a dozen years. The post-war realistic trend succeeded in breaking film noir away from the domain of the high-class melodrama, placing it where it more properly belonged, in the streets with everyday people.”

 

Another Renoir film worth examining for proto-noir elements is La nuit du carrefour (1932) [Night at the Crossroads].

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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.

I thought the very same thing about the smoking train conductor. I half expected there would be an explosion of some sort.

 

Regarding smoking as a staple in films noir, the smoke provided most of the ambiance and set a mood. One film that comes to mind, though not a film noir, is "Good Night and Good Luck" with all the cigarette smoke slowly swirling on scene. It almost felt like a character itself. I think to remove it would have changed the mood/tone completely.

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I have not seen this film before, but from what I saw, I see the opening shot of the flames mixed with the screaming whistle symbolizing foreboding things to come.

 

The realism of the dirty engineers show that not everything in the movies is glamorous, like the films of the 1930's. Everyday life is hard and we even go about our days not thinking about what we are doing. That explains the whistling from one engineer telling the other to pay attention.

 

The sudden darkness of the tunnel throws us into black oblivion and we don't know what's on the other end.

 

The music that plays as the train enters the station gives the viewer some temporary relief, knowing that all who are on the train are safe....for now.

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This opening scene gives me the sense that machines or destiny or something larger than ourselves is going to drive the course of the movie and we, people, these characters, are not in control, but just along for the ride, hanging on as best we can. The force of the trains gives that impression. Also, this use of trains made be think of Hitchcock and his use of trains in his films, (Uncle Charlie's arrival in Shadow of a Doubt with the black smoke from the train announcing his arrival; The Lady Vanishes; Stranger on a Train; North by Northwest).

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I've got these comments coming to my BlackBerry and I must say I'm so impressed with the vivid descriptions yall are giving me. Now I'll know what to look for when we see the film; or maybe I'm just going to enjoy without over analysing since this will be a new viewing for me.

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Definitely a key in film noir is the ability of the film to make you feel uncomfortable. I think what strikes me most about this opening is that there is a feeling of being out of control. Where are we going? With limited communication between the men it is hard to tell if we are in danger or simply on a frenetic train ride. The fast-paced chugging of the engine increases my own breathing and I begin to wonder about the fate of the ride as I pass rapidly through each tunnel. Putting me on the front of the train as it heads into a furious turn does nothing to quell my fear. Until, at last, the sights and sounds change that make it clear that I am safe. Like a roller coaster ride, let's do it again!

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The opening scene has great energy. The camera work is impressive, especially the shots from the wheels' point of view, and the shots in the tunnel (loved the total darkness gradually giving way to the light at the end of the tunnel). 


 


But it doesn't feel noirish. I don't get a sense of foreboding. The scenes are mostly open, and well-lit (except for the tunnel). The action is full of energy, like a train scene in a western (Butch Cassidy, for instance). In fact that's what it felt like to me, Renoir directing a "Baguette" (can't be Spaghetti in France) Western. The music also gives it energy, almost an optimism. 


 


To be honest, this felt like an ending scene, more than an opening scene. The train, pulling into the station, after a story of drama and action. Coming home... (sorry the duplicate, I think I posted in the wrong spot before)


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I also noted the tunnel sequences especially the longest one where the train enters darkness and for awhile we see nearly nothing but the shadows until the light at the end of the tunnel. It made me think of life and death where there is a rebirth of life when the train exits the darkness.

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For me this first scene is a superb metaphor of life: menacing and beautiful at the same time, with lots of obstacles to come across. At least that's how we understand living: as the trajectory with a beginning and end. 

I've found also tremendous echoes of the innermost soul we all have. There could be, in freudian terms, a beast (la bete) in all of us. This noisy atmosphere suceded by the announcing hymn that we can heat later on, conform an evocative introduction to the movie. I can't wait to watch it. This brief extract started my imagination.  :rolleyes:

 

 

marA,

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Based on the opening scene, it seems as though La Bete Humaine can be seen as contributing to the development of film noir in a couple of significant ways. The documentary feel certainly anticipates later films such as The Naked City and He Walked by Night, both of which featured gritty urban locales while emphasizing technological progress. The engineers in this opening scene were of greater interest to me, however, as they appear to anticipate the noir protagonist, which had yet to be developed (at least in American cinema). These characters, due to the very nature of their job, appear to lead a transient lifestyle, one that engenders the type of drift and anonymity common to later noir protagonists. Their stoicism as they proceed along the track, uncertain of what's ahead of them (or at least we are uncertain, as the POV shots never reveal what's through the tunnel or around the bend), reminds me of the unflappable detectives in films such as Murder My Sweet and The Maltese Falcon

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There were a few aspects of the opening scene of this film, La Bête Humaine, that could have contributed to the genre of Film Noir.

Jean Gabin's character seems to be in control of the train giving signals to his assistant in various non verbal ways, which peaked my interest about him, but I know nothing about him. I want to know more. Will he stay in control as regards to his life or be derailed somehow? The fact that the train figured prominently in the scene almost as another character... maybe the train could represent fate in some way. I understand that protagonists in film noir often feel as if fate controls their lives. On the train Gabin's character was in control... he had his assistant look ahead and he successfully negotiated the curve, but will he do that in his life? Trains appear with some frequency in film noir. Strangers on a Train comes immediately to mind. The film is in black and white at a time when color in film was around and about to come into prominence. I suppose the directors of film noir realized that despite the possible popularity of color (remember silents giving way to "talkies"), black and white augmented by refinements in lighting technique was a way to enhance the unsettling nature of what they aimed to achieve.  Black and white seems to be in the DNA of fim noir. I noted the low-key lighting when the train entered the tunnel, the lighting technique that is one of the signature techniques of film noir. I liked the cigarette smoking by the two characters. Both of the characters were blackened by the smoke and other pollutants as the train headed toward Le Havre. The characters were on a train going somewhere, which is a way to draw the viewer in. Where are they going? We find out near the end of the clip that it is Le Havre. But that is only the first step. What is going to happen there? Recall the example given by Professor Edwards from the classic film noir Out of the Past, where we see a driver from the back headed somewhere.

One other thing I could mention is that when the train lumbered into the station, there was a mist or fog-like vapor appearing there, which seemed to suggest a menace, a poison in the atmosphere...

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One thing that gets me about the opening of La Bete Humaine is the contrast between humanity and machinery.  The intercutting of the working engineers and the outside of the locomotive really emphasizes that.  We see the engineers working, smoking, and interacting with each other, making the train continue charging forward with a hitch.  There is a sense of moving forward, almost like one’s ultimate destination is inevitable and the journey is unstoppable.  Unlike M, I didn’t notice as much fearful tension, although the anticipation is certainly there.  Where is this train going?  Are we going to meet any of the passengers?  What are the passengers going to do once they arrive?  Are we going to learn more about these engineers, or are they just here to set the mood?  One thing that did create a little tension for me was that whistle in the opening seconds, which sounded a lot like a scream.  It jolts us to attention immediately, and makes us curious to know what is going on.

 

I haven’t seen La Bete Humaine yet, but this clip makes me very eager for Friday.

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The gaping, fiery maw, demanding to be fed...the slaves to its monstrous appetite stoking its gullet with more and more fuel...the Doppler effect sounds, both comforting and disquieting at the same time...the lines converging at the horizon like a black and white Wes Anderson piece...the inability of the 'humans' to use words--the reduction to gestures and whistles...the ever-present smoke (the cigarettes, the steam, the plumes in the distance, the furnace)...the fleeting contact with water, that elixir of life...and the introduction of orchestral music once in Le Havre...

This has left me breathless!

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I love how there was no music for the first 3 minutes of this scene, just the sounds of the train. I feel like this opening draws us in by showing us "behind the scenes" of operating a train. It also makes us wonder where they're going.

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Like the opening scene of M, I get the feeling that there is another person observing what is happening between the railroad engineers.  Some of the shots inside the train appear to be hand-held that contributes to the feeling that the camera is acting as an observer (maybe a third participant) in this scene.  Again, just like M, it is this “unseen participant” that adds to the darker side of this scene.

 

Like many other noir films, I get the feeling that “something” is about the happen based on the editing and sound.  This sound of the engine reminds me of the scene in The Shining where the little boy is riding his tricycle through the hallways of the hotel.  The alternating sound of the tricycle’s wheels against the hardwood floors and the carpeted floors filled me with suspense.  Likewise, the sound of the train engines and tracks led me to believe “something” was about the happen.  I must admit that when the screen when dark and the tunnel started to emerge, I expected something tragic, dangerous, sinister, etc.  I think all these film techniques contributed to the noir film style.

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The opening is long enough to give me the feeling that I am on board.

The element of noir comes from not knowing where I/we are going.

Noir gives one a somewhat fearful sense of delayed destination, where am I going but at this speed it must be important. The sounds of the train envelope one, the speed drives your curiosity as to why we are

in such a hurry to get there - what awaits us?

The arrival of the grandioso music is the raising of The Grand Curtain on our drama.

We have arrived at something as yet unknown.

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There are some interesting things going on in the opening part of La Bete Humaine with regard to film noir. I think Renoir cleverly alternated between filming in darkness and light to enhance the opening scene. In doing this he helps establish an atmosphere, a world and a texture that is dirty, grimy and steamy. In short this is not a clean and perfect world we are seeing. I think his notion that the world is a dark and grimy place where people get their hands dirty is vital to film noir.

 

The realistic depiction of the train is groundbreaking in that it showed that modes of transport could be filmed in fluid motion with the audience seeing all the cogs, pistons and gears turning. This idea of filming action in motion is a theme seen in some later noir films.

 

I also think that Renoir utilized the architecture and landscape around him really well. This goes a long way in deepening  the audience's interaction with the film.

 

Having seen this i cannot wait to see La Bete Humaine this weekend!

 

 

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I also really loved the use of sound here. It's very literally a soundtrack of machinery at the start and as the train moves and winds its way to Le Havre we get a more typical film score coming in near the end. The use of sound would later become a vital component of noir as would incidental music and I think Renoir buttressed the use of both here in this film.

 

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I thought the very same thing about the smoking train conductor. I half expected there would be an explosion of some sort.

 

Regarding smoking as a staple in films noir, the smoke provided most of the ambiance and set a mood. One film that comes to mind, though not a film noir, is "Good Night and Good Luck" with all the cigarette smoke slowly swirling on scene. It almost felt like a character itself. I think to remove it would have changed the mood/tone completely.

Frankly, I thought I saw one signal between the engineers that connoted a 'nip;' I expected one of the two engineers (fireman?) to pull out a flask or small bottle to go along with the cigarettes...

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I have not seen this noir yet (YAY) love noirs i never saw before. Just from the opening the scene my guess is that this is a crime noir.  Now I have to see if I'm right. There;s lot of action at the beginning and it makes me wonder what is going on

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In a classical tragedy performed on the stage the final conclusion can be ironically referred to in the opening scene, even in the first

spoken line. Renoir perhaps accomplishes this visually without the use of words. When Jean Gabin's engineer indicates a drinking or consuming gesture he reveals how much his character identifies with the locomotive. The locomotive and his character are interchangeable. When he later points his fingers at his goggles, supposedly to alert his fireman of the water on the tracks ahead, he is indicating the source of his fatal flaw: he can not see the world as it really is.

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This opening sequence included some shots that could be considered as film noir. The first one that stuck me was the blackness of the shovel against the white hot fire. I  noticed it not only because it was the initial scene, but the contrast between dark and light was so great. However, I couldn't attach any meaning to the goodness of the light or the evil of the dark. The scene in the tunnel, when the screen goes black, I had a sense of dread for the characters in the film, but then the light appeared to save the day. The shadows of the bridge girders really stood out to me. The train travels over and through these shadows to reach its triumphant goal, Le Havre.

 

In addition to the visual aspect of this film, the sound stood out as well. For most of the scene, we only hear the source source of the train, its whistle, its wheels, the men. To me this represents the mundane every day life, but as the train is reaching its destination the background music comes in. The jubilant nature of the piece tells me something extraordinary is going to happen. Perhaps it represents the train reaching its goal, or perhaps something else is in store.

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Sounds: The first shot of the fire furnace accompanied by a shrilling sound of the whistle.

Sounds: The crashing sound after the train enters the tunnel.

The two characters communicate  only  through expressions, sign language and whistles, there is no exchange of words. The train approaching  the end of the tunnel is beautifully shot. It gives an illusion of the appearance of a moon.

Music is used at the end of the scene.  In the last shot the camera goes into slow motion mode, and the approach towards  the  station is shot amazingly.

 

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Frankly, I thought I saw one signal between the engineers that connoted a 'nip;' I expected one of the two engineers (fireman?) to pull out a flask or small bottle to go along with the cigarettes...

I also thought that was a signal to take a drink from a flask.

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