Jean Renoir smoothed out Émile Zola's murderous storyline but La bête humaine remains a chilling examination of cold-blooded murder. Its premise seems to be that murder is a vital part of human sexuality. One man kills out of hateful jealousy. Our hero almost kills a woman he likes because he's mentally ill. He can't make himself kill for personal gain but then destroys the only thing he loves. It's not a pretty story but this film and Renoir's La chienne are obvious progenitors of the annihilating noir murder tale: Both were remade by Fritz Lang in America, as hardcore films noir.
Equally impressive is Renoir's spectacular production, which places its actors in cameras in and around real working railroad equipment and captures a convincing working-class grit of life in coal tenders and rail-head stop-overs. Criterion's disc is a beauty that makes the film look as if it were shot yesterday.
La bête humaine is an intense, fast-moving picture that works on all levels. To begin with, its record of railroad life in France of 1938 (I believe the rail systems were of a narrower gauge then) is better than any documentary of the era. Jean Gabin and his stoker Pecqueux (Julien Carette) actually learned to run a railroad engine, and everything about the trains is technically convincing.
Jean Gabin is a somewhat frustrating but completely fascinating dark hero. He blames a heritage of drunken ancestors for his manic blackouts - we see him trying to throttle a potential sweetheart to death. Since he knows he's no good to lead a decent life, he allows himself to be drawn into darker avenues.
This was Simone Simon's biggest French film and the ads touted her perverse relationship with Gabin the way an American movie might sell Gable and Lana Turner. Simon had already flunked one attempt to make it in Hollywood, but would soon return for a string of modest successes with RKO: The Devil and Daniel Webster and Cat People. Ironically, when we first see her in La bête humaine, Simone is playing with a kitten. Simone's Séverine Roubaud is a regulation femme fatale; when her husband kills a man for "taking advantage of her" years before, we can't tell if it's the truth or if she lied about the incident. We don't believe she was seduced, that's for sure. Séverine may be a savage innocent, but she's as deadly as Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Interestingly, she becomes less glamorous to us as her wicked ways become more obvious.
Renoir really hits us hard with the poetic realism. Trains fly through tunnels, and smoky atmospherics haunt the visuals day and night. His working-class characters move through dingy rooms and live mundane working-class lives. The railroad men love their work and labor hard to keep the giant, dangerous machinery in good working order. Their women are dull and disenchanted; to them Séverine in her fancy outfits looks like a princess. Renoir refuses to make their lives a cesspool of vice and misery, as was Émile Zola's stated mission. The characters of La bête humaine are flawed, but they're always sympathetic. Even Fernand Ledoux's mean-spirited stationmaster has a reason to be so insanely jealous ... he has the misfortune of being married to Séverine, after all.
Criterion's DVD of Jean Renoir's La bête humaine is a dazzler. The very sharply-photographed film has the visual texture of perfectly reproduced B&W stills -- a great grayscale and very little damage. This is impressive considering that the film was one of the most popular productions of its year. The audio is clear; Joseph Kosma's overbearing score sometimes seems a bit much, but it's very nicely recorded.
Criterion producer Abbey Lustgarten has found excellent extras for the disc. Jean Renoir provides one of his blustery introductions, and appears in a 1957 TV "re-directing" Simone Simon in a key scene from La bête humaine. Twenty years later, Simon is no longer the kittenish, deadly bon-bon, but is still in excellent shape and spirits. We also get a filmed discussion-interview with several film scholars and Zola experts, an extensive gallery with many styles of beautiful posters, and a bombastic trailer. A fat booklet contains quality writing and notes by critic Geoffrey O'Brien, historian Ginette Vincendeau, and the film's production designer, Eugène Lourié.
Peter Bogdanovich provides an excellent interview-tour of the movie that not only shows how deeply he understands Renoir, but gives him a chance to display a smooth and unfussy French accent. The film clips on this widescreen-enhanced featurette are pillarboxed and make the film look bigger and sharper than the actual film transfer --- on 16:9 displays.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
La bête humaine rates: