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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 train engineers seems oblivious to any else but the job at had. It makes me want to yell watch out something is going to happen! The train whistle reminds me of the beginning of a much newer movie Charade which starts out with the train whistle just before someone is thrown from the train.

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La bête humaine:
Renoir On and Off the Rails By Geoffrey O’Brien

The opening minutes of La bête humaine (1938) are a bracing plunge into the materiality of the world. The flames of a locomotive’s furnace, the engineer and stoker utterly absorbed in their work, the landscape speeding by, as seen from the moving train: we have the sensation not of observing reality but of being caught up in it, a sensation that is prolonged as we experience, as if for the first time, the shock of suddenly emerging from a tunnel, a moment before pulling into the geometric splendors of an immense rail yard. Forty years after the invention of movies, Jean Renoir managed to re-create the astonishment that greeted the 1898 Lumière movie of a train arriving in a station. La bête humaine is often described as an exemplar of the pessimistic poetic realism of the thirties in France, and as a precursor of forties film noir, but it begins on a note of heroic exhilaration, in which the natural world and the power of technology are wedded through the closely coordinated labor—effected through glances and sign language—of two men. 

 

Not to mention the phallic connotations of a speeding train plunging into a dark tunnel. Plus, the engineer is said to be "married" to Lison, the locomotive.

 

The speed of the train going around the curve is quite frightening, especially given the recent train crash in Philadelphia. I look forward to seeing this film, but why does TCM schedule these movies at such insane times?

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The opening sequence of La Bete Humaine did give me a few feelings familiar from a noir film. Not knowing what is to come in this film, I can only say that the loud screams of the train's whistle, and continued load roar of the engine as it sped down the tracks created feelings of anticipation and anxiousness for me. The few moments going through the dark tunnel, only hearing the loud train noises, while knowing you are moving at high speeds, felt chaotic. It was an interesting look at a train ride, that might otherwise seem peaceful. The realistic look at the engine drivers was of a strenuous job that required a lot of concentration to avoid dangerous missteps. 

In contrast, the climactic, almost heroic arrival at the station and the accompanying music did throw me off from the noir aesthetic. It seemed for lack of a better word, too "happy." I am very curious to see the rest of this film, and where the director continues to take us.

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Professionalism.

 

There's something about watching a skilled professional do his or her thing. Observing the railroad engineers in the opening of Jean Renoir's 1938 film "La Bete Humaine" reminded me of the train sequences in John Frankenheimer's 1964 film "The Train" (my personal favorite train movie of all time) and Fritz Lang's 1954 film noir "Human Desire," and I get caught up in all the procedural details. I have no idea why that is or what that means. Maybe it's why we're attracted to sports -- we're drawn to people who exhibit great skill. 

 

I've never seen this movie and I didn't read the synopsis, so I don't know where it's heading, but I know I'll be watching it this Friday to see what it's all about. Until then, I can only assume that since this is a film noir, the lead engineer seen in the beginning is going to use his great skill for criminal endeavor (think Walter Hill's 1978 neo noir "The Driver") or maybe he'll lose all he's got in an accident a la Robert Wise's 1949 classic "The Set-Up." Maybe he'll just throw away all his years of work as a train professional for a woman who will lead him astray. I'm probably joking here. Maybe I'm not.

 

Then again, maybe we're simply seeing a professional in what is a mundane world to him, and that will be the reason to escape it for something more attractive, which, in Dark City, is always going to be more dangerous.

 

BONUS CONTENT: See this scene from "The Train":

 

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This opening scene is almost a statement that you don't need dialogue to make beautiful cinema.  Nothing in this opening segment, however, is beautiful in the conventional sense.  Yet taken as a whole, it has great appeal.  The powerful locomotive, the industrial plants spewing smoke, the urban landscape, even the engineers are visually captivating.  Something not unlike urban decay photography.

 

But there's more to this opening.  As in M, the opening scene of La Bete Humaine establishes a mood.   The mood in La Bete Humaine is not troubling as was the case in M, but yet it does instill a certain amount of fear in the audience.  The train is powerful, noisy, dangerous, ominous.  If something should go wrong, the result would likely be a calamity.  Will something go wrong we wonder.  Yet we humans are drawn in by it.  What more could you ask for an opening to a film noire classic?  I can't wait to see this movie!  (My DVR is already set.)

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Not ever having seen La Bete Humaine nor familiar with it, I can not be certain if the two train engineers are criminals or innocents.  The set-up reminds me of other films in which we, the observers, become privy to the machinations of a crime about to happen, such as a grand heist.  The perpetrators are workmanlike, intent on getting the job done.  We go along for the ride, literally in this case, with the fluid pov train footage.  On the other hand, it could be two ordinary workers going about their business unaware they are about to get caught up in something sinister.  A planned derailment? The "great train robbery"?  In either scenario, the train is an iconic symbol of life hurtling us towards our fate.  The entrance into the tunnel signals a transformation from mundane to dark, mysterious forces that we can't comprehend.  I look forward to seeing this film to find out which direction it will go.

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At times you are a crew member on the engine, and other times you are an observer, standing by the tracks watching the train speed by. The darkness of the tunnel is a precursor to the darkness of later noir and is the unknown. Trains or train yards later play an important part in "This Gun For Hire"' The Asphalt Jungle" and as a major plot device in "Double Indemnity", just to name a few. In that era, train travel was as common as plane travel is today, so it was familiar to most people and these situations could resonate with them as later air disaster movies did to the flying public.

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Like the train itself, I wonder where this film is headed.  For almost the first four minutes, there is only the sound of the train and its whistle.  Then, we hear jolly music. There must be some crime about to be committed, but for those first few minutes there is nothing sinister.  Because of this class, I expected something to happen in the dark tunnel, but nothing did.  Very intriguing.

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The furnace in the opening scene is like a great eager mouth into which coal is fed in order to keep the formidable creature thundering along.

 

 

 

An atmosphere of a certain intimacy is created in the small working place, a camaraderie of soot, sweat and shared duty. The engineers go about their specific tasks earnestly, with ease and human-eye precision. All this is perceived in a dynamic, almost coreographic way through the men's movements and actions.

 

 

 

These engaging technical details are soon eclipsed by the beauty of an almost moon-like apparition in the dark, when this great animal dashes out of the black end of a long tunnel into open air.

 

 

 

Power and speed, as well as a sense of beauty and grandiosity are efficiently conveyed by the camera's position.

 

 

Beautiful use of triumphant, almost epic symphonic music when the train is punctually reaching its destination.

 

 

 

 

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I'm new to this film genre so it's all interesting. What I first notice is the fire of the engine and am reminded of extreme heat and fire danger. Two people in an extremely small space with a lot of work to be done quickly. The engineer and fireman are a well-oiled team and the running of the train (and passengers' lives) depends on them and their skills. The music at the end at first felt good, it is a relief of tension.

 

I noticed that for all the activity in the engine room there is little activity outside. No one is out in the fields, we see only one train going in the other direction, in the train yard is a hint of activity that is hidden from us. A precursor to what is coming next? We feel safe coming into the station, but are we really? What's up next?

 

I love the scene picking up the water for the train. Reminds me of just how precise we must be in life sometimes for everything to work together. And what could happen if we miss. There is actually a lot of danger, hidden and open, in that engine room. Precision timing is absolutely necessary to keep things going well. Both the engineer and the fireman must work together as well as do their own work.

 

I feel a part of the train in the outside scenes. It is as if I'm standing on a platform on the outside and whizzing down the tracks. I'm glad our vision is from the engine's viewpoint. It keeps me focused.

 

While I appreciate the symbolism of the train tunnel and the light at the end of it, I really appreciate the interplay of light and dark along the train trestle. Most of life is not all dark or all light, but a mixture of the two. We may not always see with our eyes that interplay, but somewhere inside we know it's there.

 

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Wow again. Wow, wow, wow. what beautiful cinematography. I was enthralled, part of the working journey of these two men.

It was fast moving and not being a student of cinema until now, I am guessing it is an attempt to throw us headlong into the story.

I just love black and white photography and cinematography, Orson Welles comes chiefly to mind.

And the shadows, always shadows and the slight creeping down of time.

Very nice. I also loved the engineers' phlegmatic reactions to what might be a more hurried response. 

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I remember first seeing this film over a year ago and marveling at it being one of the longest opening sequences I had ever seen! Essentially, I find that our protagonist Lantier is personified by the train: a hurling, relentless, primal beast heading straight for ruin. No spoilers here for those who haven't seen it, but the film's ending is quite poetic. We get 4 straight minutes of this train barreling through towns, in many ways like a' bat out of hell' as a fellow peer stated. We don't know where we're going or what will appear at the end of the line so to speak but we instinctually know it will be a hell of a ride getting there. As for the cinematography, Renoir uses very interesting shots, many mounted camera shots to really relay not just the train zooming through but the train's **** persona. We become aware of Lantier's job and also get insight into him. The shots do feel documentarian more than noir, but I just love the shot while the train is approaching the end of the tunnel. There is a soft light at the end of the tunnel but before that totally darkness and obscurity! That is definitely noir and the ultimate question of Fate/Destiny. Plus, I noticed the final scene when approaching the station Le Havre (which translates to "The Haven") is intriguing. A beast rumbles through to literally and figuratively reach "A Haven". But as we seen the film, we can see that the name is truly ironic and a metaphor for what Lantier can never achieve. Tremendous film!

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"The Train Must Be Fed" is a song title from another "train movie," The Harvey Girls.  Don't look for simple romance or cheerful songs in La Bete Humaine, though.  The noir aspects of the film present themselves from the first frame, where we see the firebox of the train engine being fed coal, like a hungry mouth.  The train must be fed, and so must the protagonist.  Hunger and desire move the train and the action forward. From that first image we see the train, the engineers, and then the camera, strategically placed, tells us where the train is going, revealing the countryside that it is traveling through.  Powerful and relentless, the train seems unstoppable.  Emile Zola's novel, upon which the movie is based, traces the relationship between the powerful, impersonal train and the engineer, with an equally unstoppable, equally impersonal need to kill that links both engineer and train.  

 

The words "impersonal and "powerful" seem to relate to why this movie, and its brutally elegant opening, would be classified as film noir.  In other noir films, the impersonal city, the inexorable workings of a crime syndicate, or some other urban force propel the characters.  Here, the train finds its inevitable way across an urban landscape, as it brings death to the town of Le Havre and its inhabitants.  The engineers have trouble "seeing" where the train is going.  It doesn't matter.  It will follow its own course, elegant, unstoppable, and impersonal.  

 

Beyond The Forest has an ominous train.  So does Shadow of a Doubt.  They work the same way.  The powers they represent reach their conclusions inevitably.  The viewer simply hangs on for the ride.
 

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Feeding the Beast.

Two Engineers must feed the industrial beast as it snakes through the country to it's city station. 

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I have a student who is from France, and I had to ask her for some translations and explanations. The title means The Human Beast; it makes it a bit clearer about what I can expect.

  • The train may be a symbol for the conductor. Strong, tough, gritty, maybe even greed?
  • Perhaps the conductor's relationship with the train itself (I was reminded of the silent film The General and Buster Keaton's love for his train).
  • La Havre is a port city outside Paris. That explains the empty station. It isn't a commuter train but rather used for shipments. The emptiness, though, can still peak the audience's interest. Perhaps some sort of illegal transport or transaction about to take place? A heist?
  • The light/dark contrast may not necessarily be good and evil, but it can be the two sides of human consciousness. Perhaps some sort of internal conflict? This was usually a common theme in most hardboiled films noir and fiction.

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This is a wonderful way to open La Bete Humaine, one of Zola's powerful psychological thrillers. The images of the locomotive, a massive, well-oiled machine that dwarfs its engineers, and the grimy men working in concert to stoke the engine, as much a well-oiled machine in their teamwork as the locomotive itself, establishes the sort of gritty reality of Zola's naturalism. This will be no fairy tale, there will be no romance or fantasy, just the workings of men and machine. 

 

The focus is very intimate, almost claustrophobic, confined to the train on its tracks and the men within, rather than the scenery of the countryside it travels through. Exterior shots tend to be focused on nearness: the tunnel, enclosed within the trestle, the approaching engine. Again, this will be a story closely concentrating upon men (and women) and their intimate and interior lives, not set upon a grand stage. 

 

Renoir uses no score until the final moments, which first establishes the realism of the setting, then heightens the glory of the engineers returning to the trainyard at Le Havre, particularly for Lantier, who is all but consumed by his devotion to the locomotive. 

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The City and the Train

The opening scene of 'la Bete Humaine' is indicative of the way urban modernization and circulation inform early films noir.  If early film noir finds its most fitting or plausible setting in the city, that has to have some relation to industry and modernization.  To me, this is most relevant as a discussion of the noir protagonist that has to make his (always his) way through a fragmented reality of the city.  The city is cut and carved by the rapid and dizzying vectors of modernization.  What is the "Bete Humaine" to which the title refers?  Human nature, or is it technology in the form of the train that circulates pervasively throughout the entire film?  The train is like a moving city with its clanking and regulated bustle.  Noir is notable for its contradictory modes.  On the one hand, it is marked by its influence of realism.  It's interested in the city, in architechture, in the mien and garb of the period it captures.  On the other hand is the influence of German Expressionism: its oneric blur between reality and dream, its expressionistic low key lighting and focus on the jagged, crooked and bizarre.  In the opening of 'la Bete Humaine' the characters are marked by darkness, as black as the train, they seem to blend into the background--a dark, undifferentiead iron mass of goggles, gauges and gears.   Their goggles and smeared black faces make them appear as, not inhabitants on the train, but as nearly indistinguishable from it, their lives tethered to the rails.  All of this is reinforced by montage: whose POV is being shown as the camera speeds down the rail?  The characters? The train itself?  Or are they the same?  I think a major feature of noir is the relationship of character to the city made manifest by the motif of shadow.  Here, it is the train. 

 

Also, For anyone interested in realism in film more generally, this opening scene of 'la Bete Humaine' is redolent of a British work of realism that focuses on trains called 'Night Mail' (1936).  You can watch it on youtube.

 

[...]

Edited by eduardowolbert
Removed video for copyright
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I'm looking forward to viewing and analyzing these films. Film Noir is my favorite genre of film.

 

As I was watching this sequence, the following stood out for me -

 

1. How the orchestration music in the background reached a crescendo as the train arrived at the station as if they were coming to the end of a performance. 

 

2. How the nonverbal communication between these 2 men gave you a strong impression that they've worked together for a long time and knew what each of them needed at every turn, and the fact that they obviously have been doing this work for some time because of how they knew their way around the engine and how to move that train along its tracks.

 

3. The editing cuts as they cut from tracks to the train and the 2 men -  its every nuance made you realize that the movie would be using this as its main backdrop, also giving you an understanding of the metaphor it was going to play - the road ahead and what it might bring.

 

4. It has a very gritty feel to it, no glamour to it. It illustrates the nonglamorous lives of the characters, yet the music brings in some beauty.

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I loved the use of sound in this opening scene.  All we hear are the workings of the train.  No one speaks.  There is no music yet.  It made me tense because I did not know if the scene was going to end badly for one of the two men.  But then to hear the upbeat music and see the train approaching the city station, the tension releases.  I want to continue to watch the entire movie, and hope the same tension and release occurs.  I also loved how the music's tempo begins to slow as the train slows down to a stop.   

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I am surprised that none of the comments talk about the incredible editing of the film - this sequences is what it is because of the editing. Excellent work.

 

The feeling I got was that we were watching two men doing a job they have been doing for years and years, working in perfect sync. I wanted to know where we were going AND when we were going to get there. Left me feeling a bit anxious because no story had begun during the whole scene. 

Exactly an engineer and his fireman doing their routine job like clockwork, knowing it's a noir you know that something is going to disrupt this routine.

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Just finished watching the film, which now I consider a fine example of the influence of European pre-war crime films in film noir, and perhaps of what film noir would be had it flourished in France instead of the United States. Many elements of film noir are present: a miserable, fatalistic world with doomed characters, haunted by their past and weakness, two crimes of passion, love stories with no hope and terrible consequences and, technically speaking, low key lighting and a world of shadows. Having watched the whole film, I believe the opening scene with the train is an allegory usually found in noirs: the turbulent and noisy journey the main characters take, with only one possible destination, death.

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Watching this clip I made note of the following:

The camera placement on the train, sound and editing were brilliant.  With the limited technology (limited as we see it I suppose) they had to be quite inventive of how to capture moments. Even when the camera on the train with the conductors, you get a real sense of what their day would be like; the constant movement of the train, the extreme decibels and constant vigilance.  The first 5 minutes alone was very real.  Real humanity, real sounds, movement and people.  No dialogue needed.  The crescendo of music as the train arrives at the station, you almost get a sense of needing to applause :)

 

I remember watching and reading about the Lumiere brothers when they began filming and how they revolutionized film and moving pictures.  I remember reading about the first time it was realized that they did not have to film one continuous shot.  The film could be clipped and put together to literally cut out the parts you didn't want/need.  I believe (please correct me if my memory is incorrect) that the description in the email describes the Lumiere  movie.  The first edited movie by the Lumiere brothers.  It is also ironic that the 2nd daily dose features a french film, when the pioneers of the movie industry were French.

 

Looking forward to #3!!!

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With so many great posts and ideas from so many in this course...I'll only add that I was struck by the following:

 

  • The two men were part of the great machine - men to engine to train to its movement through the landscape...all one seamless machine. 
  • Felt a constant state of dread and fear as the train entered each tunnel, crossed each trestle, whizzed by the platforms.
  • Finally, trains, especially ones clipping along at this pace always give me a sense of escape...escape to where and why and who?
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The orchestration of the trains, which direction, which tracks, how fast or slow parallels the music played at the end of the clip.  The grandeur of the machines themselves allows you to wonder, as the train goes through the tunnel or over the bridge, what is on the other side and what event or events are to come.  It will be interesting to view this movie to see since I am not familiar with it.

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