Wednesday, November 30, 2022

La Bête Humaine (1938) French Poetic Realist Noir Masterpiece

"Besides being one of the Greatest French Noir it's also one of the First of the Films Noir, this is also an amazing film for railfans" (Noirsville)

Directed by Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game, The Grand Illusion). 

Screenplay adaptation written by Jean Renoir with Denise Leblond credited for additional dialogue and based on the novel by Émile Zola.

Cinematography by Curt Courant. Music by Joseph Kosma. Film Editing by Suzanne de Troeye and Marguerite Renoir. 

Jean Gabin as locomotive engineer Jacques Lantier

Simone Simon as Séverine Roubaud

The film stars Jean Gabin (he has possibly a total of 42 Noir & Neo Noir which just might make him the King of Film Noir, lol) as locomotive engineer Jacques Lantier, Julien Carette as his fireman Pecqueux, Simone Simon (Cat People) as Séverine Roubaud, Fernand Ledoux as Roubaud, Blanchette Brunoy as Flore, Gérard Landry as Dauvergne, Jean Renoir as Cabuche, Jacques Berlioz as Grandmorin, and the SNCF (The Société nationale des chemins de fer français).

Julien Carette as fireman Pecqueux

Fernand Ledoux as Roubaud

The title, translated as The Human Beast, can really be applied to all the characters in the film. There isn't any major character that isn't flawed in one way or the other. Renoir is basically holding a mirror up to all of us. 

The Parisian right wing & religious publications in France condemned the film as a "black film" a Film Noir, that depicted  murder or suicide and various social taboos i.e., indecency, immorality, and sacrilegious, That tended to incite crime and depicted characters with corrupt morals who had no redeeming qualities.

Though you can get the gist of La Bête Humaine from the introductory passage after the opening credits, you may not realize that, "The novel on which the film is based is part of a series of 20 novels that Zola wrote, which cover the history of a single family through several generations and through several decades of 19th-century French history. Each of these stories is capable of standing on its own, but they are more satisfying if you know at least something of the broader context. "La Bête Humaine" is one of the last few volumes in the series, and accordingly, it largely assumes a familiarity with the basic themes. Zola had two main concerns in these novels: (i) to show how certain family traits (positive and negative) re-appear in successive generations, and (ii) to show how the lives of a particular family reflect events and trends in French society as a whole. Zola was a naturalistic writer - he had a strong sense of identification with and sympathy for his characters, but he also portrayed his characters and his country in an uncompromising light, just as they were." (Snow Leopard - IMDb)

The Story

Jacques Lantier. Engineer. SNCF railroad. In 1938 steam locomotion is in it's high tech phase. Jacques is married to "Lison" officially 231-592 a 4-6-2 "Pacific" class steam locomotive. His job keeps his madness at bey. Jacques is plagued by his family history of drunkenness. He probably suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. His symptoms include rapidly changing moods, coupled with an incontrollable. . murderous, impulse. His ancestral line combatted all this by drinking themselves stupid, hence perpetuating the problem. However, Jacques is aware of this, and does not drink.

His dedicated work on his engine "Lison" and his speeding across the world has a soothing effect on his mental stability. His discipline enhances his professionalism. He is a top man on the Paris - Le Havre run. We see all this beautifully illustrated in Renoir's intriguing opening montage.  

Opening Montage Highlights

231-592 a 4-6-2 "Pacific" class steam locomotive engine cab

driving wheels

231-592 a 4-6-2 "Pacific" class steam locomotive

Tunnel portal

Track pans for taking water on the fly


le Havre terminal

Pulling to a stop at the marker

After pulling to a stop into the Le Havre terminal they feel discover one of Lison's diving wheels has  developed a "hot" journal box. After reporting the problem, Jacques and his fireman Pecqueux have a 36 hour layover in Le Havre for the repairs. For Jacques it means some idle time to visit his Aunt Phasie who is married to a crossing guard and her family just outside of Le Havre. For married Pecqueux it's a chance to shack up with girlfriend. 

Hot axel journal

While Jacques is visiting Aunt Phasie. He asks how has she been doing and he also asks about her daughter, his cousin Flore, who he was always interested in and vice versa. The Aunt Phasie tells him she's down by the river. 

We see a pretty blonde woman flashing legs and thighs & washing her legs while sitting in a rowboat snugged up with a rope to the shore. She has two admirers peeping on her from the shore. When she is done and walking up the bank she is accosted by one of the peepers, who tries to grab her. She pushes him into the river. 

At this time Jacques arrives and remarks on how big she has gotten. As he is eyeing her, Flore tells him that he is like all the rest of the men (who are, you know, looking for one thing, she implies). She runs away towards the railway embankment. He chases her and catches her near the top. 

.She fights him off, he pushes her down in the grass. Is he going to rape her? He kisses her and then she embraces him. It's never explained in the film (maybe in the novel), but we assume they were possibly one time lovers. 

However their building passion is cooled when Jacques on a crazed impulse puts his hands around her throat and begins to strangle her. He only releases his grip when the comforting cacophony of a high balling locomotive calms him down. 

Flore, now concerned and understanding, asks him if that was the families sickness. Jacques answers yes.

Meanwhile station master Roubaud made a big faux pas  A woman complained about a man who had his dog in the passenger car rather than in the baggage car. Roubaud reprimanded him somewhat rudely. He soon finds out from a work colleague that he is a relative of a high railroad official.

Roudaud is a good natured schmo, with all the personality of a bump on a log, who is married to the beautiful, petite, alluring, Séverine. He can't believe his good fortune to snag a fox like Séverine, He looks at her in wonderment like a kid looking at the presents under the tree on Christmas morning. He's that awed. Séverine's .got a Betty Boop look going for her.

Roubaud though is now worried about his job, because of the incident at the station, he asks his young wife Séverine if she will intercede for him with Grandmorin in Paris who is on the railroads board of directors. Séverine was the daughter of one of the two housekeepers Grandmorin had growing up. This is a Film Noir and when I said "had" in the last sentence it means not only employed but had in a sexual way. 

Séverine reluctant at first, finally agrees and she and Roubaud take the train to Paris to go to speak with Grandmorin. They check in into the railroad hostel, and then Séverine goes to see Grandmorin. 

In Paris

At Grandmorin's place

she knows the way....

Old friends

She doesn't come back for hours. And when she does get back she tells Roubaud that she was out shopping. She reinforces this by showing him a present she bought him. Its a folding knife. 

Where is she?

You still have your job

She tells him  the good news is that he still has his job. The bad news is the thoughts now going through Roubauds head about just how she accomplished that task.

What did you have to do for that?

By a slip of Séverine's tongue Roubaud begins to smell something fishy. He starts smacking her around and gets all the sordid details, Séverine was also, in turn, after her mother, seduced by Grandmorin and basically everyplace Roubaud's been and probably some he hasn't, where deflowered by Grandmorin long ago when she was just sixteen. She became his mistress. 

Séverine after Roubaud beats the sleazy truth out of her

Roubaude now disgusted, tells her that she was just an old man's cast off. She's a second hand bimbo, and he's a first class chump. Embarrassed and with his pride hurt, Roubaud wants to kill Grandmorin in revenge. 

Roubaud has Séverine write Grandmorin a letter hinting at another sexual liaison on the train. How Noir of Roubaud. Roubaud instructs Séverine to tell him to take the Paris-Havre express and she will meet him in his compartment once underway. 

"She's a railroad lady, Just a little bit shady...." (Willie Nelson)

They board the train and start on the return trip to Le Havre. When Roubaud thinks enough time has passed and most passengers are sleeping he orders Séverine to come with him. They head towards Grandmorin's compartment.

Its time

Grandmorin day dreaming about his promised good time with Séverine

Coincidentally Jacques returning back to Le Havre from his visit with Aunt Phasie boards the train and ends up in the same car that Roubaud and Séverine have just left on the way to Grandmorin. 

Using Séverine to gain entrance to Grandmorin's compartment, Roubaud pulls down the curtains and stabs Grandmorin once in the heart killing him instantly.


The fun is about to start

(In the novel Roubaud cuts Grandmorin'sd throat, and he makes Séverine help him dump his body from the train.)

Roubaud takes Grandmorin's money and watch to make the crime look liker a murder and theft. When they return to their car they are surprised to see Jacques standing in the corridor looking out an open window smoking a cigarette.

It looks as if Jacques is lost in though since he doesn't turn towards them. Roubaud sneaks into their compartment and Séverine tells him that she will go out and see if the man saw them come down the corridor. 

Séverine goes out of their compartment and approaches Jacques. They both like what each other sees. Later after they find Grandmorin's body, at the police enquiry, Jacques states that he saw nobody pass by him in the corridor. The police accuse an ex-con Cabuche a known violent criminal in the assault.

(In the novel Jacques is still at his aunts house along the tracks and he sees Roubaud and Séverine dump Grandmorin from the passing train)

Séverine and Jacques begin a torrid love affair of stolen moments in various track shanties in the railyard, while Roubaud drinks and slowly gambles away Grandmorin's stolen money. His desire for Séverine has gone cold. 

It all goes off the tracks in the ground zero of Noirsville when Séverine convinces Jacques to kill Roubard so that she can be free of him.


In this film everyone's a looser in one way or another. It doesn't have the Hollywood happy ending, though believe it or not it isn't quite as Noir as the end of Zola's novel (I'll explain later). 

Jean Renoir does a masterful job with direction, the cinematography by Courant puts everything on a gritty hyper-realistic level that beautifully advances the story. Jean Gabin is compelling he is truly one of the kings of noir (he's in roughly 30 Noir), who's films should be more readily available here in the US. Simone Simon is exceptional as an alluring, cute as lace pants, Femme Fatale who is at first reluctantly swept away into a vortex of sexual desire, indecency, and immorality. Julien Carette as fireman Pecqueux plays the sidekick to a T. Fernand Ledoux plays Roubaud the trusting dope who turns homicidal convincingly. 10/10

Noirsville's Railroad Noir / Neo Noir List (a railfans personal list of films of interest)

  1. La Bête Humaine (1938)
  2. The Narrow Margin (1952)
  3. The Tall Target (1951)
  4. Human Desire (1954)
  5. Appointment with Danger (1950)
  6. Terror on a Train (1953)
  7. It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
  8. Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train (1988)
  9. For Them That Trespass (1949)
  10. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
  11. Strangers on a Train (1951)
  12. The Interrupted Journey (1949) 
  13. Cairo Station (1958)

Before I get any flack from readers, I'm leaving off Subway/el Noir for another list.

The novel, believe it or not, is more intricate and even Noir-er than the truncated film. 

Lantier, the "human beast" of the title, has a hereditary madness and has several times in his life wanted to murder women. At the beginning of the story he is an engine driver, in control of his engine, "La Lison." His relationship with "La Lison" is almost sexual and provides some degree of control over his mania.

As a result of a chance remark, Roubaud suspects that Séverine has had an affair some years earlier, with Grandmorin, one of the directors of the railway company, who had acted as her patron and who had helped Roubaud get his job. He forces a confession out of her and makes her write a letter to Grandmorin, telling him to take a particular train that evening, the same train Roubaud and Séverine are taking back to Le Havre.

Meanwhile, Lantier, who is not working while his engine is being repaired, goes to visit his Aunt Phasie who lives in an isolated house by the railway. On leaving he meets his cousin, Flore, with whom he has had a longstanding mutual attraction. After a brief conversation with her his passions become inflamed and he is on the verge of raping her but this in turn brings on his homicidal mania. He has a desire to stab her but just about controls himself and rushes away. Finding himself beside the railway track as the train from Paris passes, he sees, in a split second, a figure on the train holding a knife, bent over another person. Shortly after, he finds the body of Grandmorin beside the track with his throat cut. It is also discovered that he has been robbed of his watch and some money.

An investigation is launched and Roubaud and Séverine are prime suspects, as they were on the train at the time and were due to inherit some property from Grandmorin. The authorities never suspect their true motive. Lantier sees Roubaud while waiting to be interviewed and identifies him as the murderer on the train, but when questioned, says he cannot be sure. The investigating magistrate, believing that the killer was Cabuche, a carter who lived nearby, dismisses Roubaud and Séverine. The murder remains unsolved.

Despite being cleared of suspicion, the marriage of Roubaud and Séverine declines. Zola casually tosses in a remark that the money and watch stolen from Grandmorin was hidden behind the skirting board in their apartment, thus confirming the reader's suspicion that Roubaud was the murderer all along. Séverine and Lantier begin an affair, at first clandestinely but then more blatantly until they are caught in flagrante delicto by Roubaud. Despite his previous jealousy, Roubaud seems unmoved and spends less and less time at home and turns to gambling and drink.

Séverine admits to Lantier that Roubaud committed the murder and that together they disposed of the body. Lantier feels the return of his desire to kill and one morning leaves the apartment to kill the first woman he meets. After having picked a victim, he is seen by someone he knows, and so abandons the idea. He then realizes that he has the desire no longer. It is his relationship with Séverine and her association with the murder that has abated his desire.

The relationship between Roubaud and his wife deteriorates when she realizes that he has taken the last of the hidden money. Lantier has the opportunity to invest money in a friend's business venture in New York. Séverine suggests they use the money from the sale of the property they inherited from Grandmorin. Roubaud is now the only obstacle to this new life and they decide to kill him. They approach him one night when he is working as a watchman at the station, hoping that the murder will be attributed to robbers. At the last moment however, Lantier loses his nerve.

Cousin Flore, meanwhile, sees Lantier pass her house every day on the train and noticing Séverine with him, realizes they are having an affair and becomes insanely jealous, wishing to kill them both. She hatches a plot to remove a rail from the line in order to cause a derailment of his train. One morning, she seizes an opportunity, when Cabuche leaves his wagon and horses unattended, near the railway line. She leads the horses onto the line, shortly before the train arrives. In the resulting crash, numerous people are killed and Lantier is seriously injured. Séverine, however, remains unhurt. Wracked by guilt, Flore commits suicide by walking in front of a train.

Séverine nurses Lantier back to health. She convinces him that they must kill Roubaud and Lantier finally gives in, and they concoct a plan to get away with it completely. However, Lantier's mania returns, and when Séverine tries to make love with him, just before Roubaud is due to arrive, he murders her. The unfortunate Cabuche is the first to find her body and is accused of killing her at the behest of Roubaud. Both are put on trial for this and the murder of Grandmorin. They are both convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Lantier begins driving again, but his new engine is just a number to him. He begins an affair with his fireman's girlfriend.

The novel ends as Lantier is driving a train carrying troops towards the front at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. The resentment between Lantier and his fireman breaks out as the train is travelling at full steam. Both fall to their deaths as the train full of happy, drunken, patriotic and doomed soldiers hurtles driverless through the night. (Wiki)

Now, how Noir is that? Can you imagine this film with the original novels ending....

Driving the État 231-592 in 1938: La Bête Humaine / The Human Beast Highlights Cab Ride