La Bête Humaine

Jean Gabin and Simone Simon

In Emile Zola’s story La Bête Humaine, the “human beast” is train driver Jacques Lantier, a man whose family line is full of fuck-ups, alcoholics and brutes. He keeps his passions in check, just about, by focusing rigidly on his job, and in particular on his locomotive, which he calls by the female name Lison.

There’s an intertitle card telling us all this at the start of Jean Renoir’s brilliant 1938 adaptation of the story. However, the “beast” of Renoir’s version might actually not be Lantier at all. Instead it could be Séverine, the lusty wife of a plodding stationmaster in Le Havre, where Lantier is forced to spend some time when his engine breaks down.

Renoir blocks out his characters at speed. Lantier the bluff, masculine type, played by Jean Gabin in the sort of role you could imagine Robert De Niro playing in his prime. Fernand Ledoux as Roubaux, the principled, decent but stolid stationmaster with a much younger wife, Séverine (Simone Simon), who’s introduced in wowsers style – wanton pout, fancy clothes, a toy dog. Séverine can lay claim to be the first femme fatale. In some parts of the world this film went by the more obviously film noir title Judas Was a Woman.

And then some background, sketching in hidden reefs of psychology for both Lantier and Séverine. His visit to see his godmother while he’s stuck in Le Havre, where he almost rapes the godmother’s daughter down by the river. Time were different etc etc and the exact nature of the relationship between Lantier and Flore (Blanchette Burnoy) is unclear, but even down he decades it’s obvious something inappropriate is going on. Meanwhile, Séverine’s visit to her godfather, Monsieur Grandmorin, a Mr Big of the railways, reveals another strangely transgressive relationship. Were Séverine and Grandmorin once lovers? Is he her father? Is he her father and her lover?

Lantier at the controls of his train
Full speed to destruction!

These two emotional disaster zones intersect when Séverine’s husband, Roubaud, is driven to murder Grandmorin on a train and Lantier sees enough of the deed to finger Roubaud and his accompanying wife trouble. To keep Lantier’s mouth shut, the wife decides to seduce him. And here Simone Simon, turning all the seductress knobs to 11, demonstrates why she was a massive star and the movie moves firmly into the realm of tragedy.

You cannot imagine Hollywood in 1938 (the year of Bringing Up Baby and Boys Town) going anywhere near material this dark. Fritz Lang got about halfway there with 1954’s Human Desire, his version of the same source material. Renoir, rather than sensationalise it, just lays it all out in a matter of fact style. Strangely, it just makes things even darker (and more enjoyable).

Over the top of it all he also delivers one of the great train movies of all time, with enough detail of driving the iron beasts to satisfy the inner train nut. The film has clearly been plundered by John Frankenheimer for The Train, which is perhaps the train movie to beat all others.

Gabin is to this movie exactly what Burt Lancaster was to The Train and delivers a Mount Rushmore performance as Lantier. Gabin learned how to drive a train for the film, and handles all the various knobs and levers like a man who’s done it a thousand times.

You could ignore the murky story of sexual transgression, betrayal and death, and the trainspotter aspect, and Gabin’s and Simon’s world-weary yet passionate performances and the film would still be delivering, thanks to lighting so lustrous you could bathe in it. It’s by the brilliant Curt Courant and its high Hollywood style (key lights, hair lights, shadow fills etc) complements Renoir’s painterly command of the frame (he was the son of the famous impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir and the talent seems to have been inherited).

You could even watch it for the clothes. Gabin’s tweed suit is so solid and well made it looks bulletproof. Or for the film’s influence on Martin Scorsese. With adjustments for period etc, this could easily be a Scorsese film.

I watched the Studio Canal version of the film, which even though unrestored is largely in great shape (the odd slight degradation here and there). There is also a restored Criterion version, and since Criterion seems to be the failsafe way to go it’s what I’m linking to below.

La Bête Humaine – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

La Grande Illusion

Erich Von Stroheim in La Grande Illusion


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



11 November



First World War ends, 1914

On this day in 1914, hostilities officially ceased on the Western Front (which ran through Belgium, north-eastern France and Alsace-Lorraine – then German, now French), effective 11am. Though the First World War is often described as a victory of the allied powers, officially the result was a draw – the fighting between all concerned was simply called off. Though of course Germany had been beaten and in the Peace of Versailles, the Treaty arranged shortly afterwards, the looseness of this technical distinction became clear – Germany lost territory, its navy, most of its army and was forced to pay reparations to the victorious parties. This onerous burden – officially Germany did not lose the war – led to the “stab in the back” myth in Germany, which Hitler would later exploit to great effect. But back to the Front on 11 November, where fighting carried on until 11am, with some units continuing to fire even after 11am rather than have to haul ammunition back to base. The last man to die, officially, was Henry Gunther, an American from Baltimore, who died one minute before 11am, while charging towards German troops, who were astonished to see him so close to the official cessation of hostilities. His grandparents were German, ironically.



La Grande Illusion (1937, dir: Jean Renoir)

Make sure you see a recent restoration of this great war film by Jean Renoir. Because it’s clear from even the first crude intertitle on the one I saw (which was on the Studio Canal label) that it’s a brilliant one – so crisp, such control of the tones – the 2011 restoration outdoing the already pretty good 1999 one, particularly when it comes to contrast. The film also is brilliant, a masterpiece of economical storytelling about French pilots being captured by the Germans in the First World War and then treated to a spiffing dinner before being sent off to a PoW camp. And what a picture it paints of the officer class, as exemplified by Erich Von Stroheim on the German side, Pierre Fresnay for the French – men who had a pan-European vision, even though they were at war, who could communicate with each other in several languages, were relaxed in each other’s company, had friends in common, in fact. As to the plot, it’s a tunnelling/escape movie, the prototype for all the Great Escape (hey, great title for a movie) films that have come since. The fact that this is the first, and that it’s so good, might explain why other tunnelling/escape movies are good too – they learned the lessons Renoir taught them. Not, for example, to portray the Germans as murderous swine. Not to fall too easily into the stereotype trap – almost everyone in this film is a well rounded individual with hopes and fears. We sympathise even with the rich guy who is worth a billion dollars outside, but inside is just one of the boys. There’s even a black character here, just for a second or too, but definitely there, his skin colour unremarked upon. The Big Illusion of the title? I’m not sure. It’s either the belief that war is useful or moral, or it’s rule by the aristocratic class, on the point of being swept away by the arrival of the era of the working man, typified by the film’s hero Jean Gabin, and the era of money, exemplified by the new money banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) who now owns the chateau that Fresnay’s character’s family once occupied. Another advantage to seeing the restoration I saw is to see a recording of Renoir introducing the film on its re-release in the early 1960s. What a forthright, eloquent, intelligent and humane man he is.



Why Watch?


  • A war film about the First World War made when the Second War was looking increasingly likely
  • Renoir’s fabulously fluid camera
  • Erich Von Stroheim in monocle and neckbrace – just as he should be
  • A regular on “greatest ever” lists


© Steve Morrissey 2013



La Grande Illusion – at Amazon