Directed by: JEAN RENOIR
1938, TSPDT Rank #854
Like Julien Duvivier's Pépé le moko, Jean Renoir's La bête humaine contains many moments which foreshadow the Hollywood film noir movement of the 1940s and '50s. It tells the story of a railroad worker named Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin in another of his iconic 1930s roles), who witnesses a Le Havre stationmaster (Fernand Leydoux) and his wife (Simone Simon, a mesmerizing femme fatale prototype) returning from the scene of a murder on board a train. Rather than reporting what he saw, he falls in love with the wife - who, in turn, attempts to convince Jacques to kill her husband. The story, based on a novel of the same name by Émile Zola, differs from the typical noir narrative in a number of ways, but its downtrodden mood and story of man blinded by passion may have been a source of influence for Hollywood filmmakers who saw the film.
La bête humaine also devotes a great deal of screen time to showing its main character at work, a common characteristic of the French poetic realist films of this era. The film opens and closes with lengthy sequences that show Jacques driving his beloved locomotive, focusing on the gritty details of the work and evoking the poetic in the everyday. Jacques' romance with the stationmaster's wife pulls him away from this essential part of him, reducing its importance in his life to the point that he turns into a murderous beast - a condition supposedly inherited from the generations of alcoholics before him, although it also works as a convenient poetic allegory for the destructive nature of his romantic relationship.
La bête humaine was one of Renoir's most popular films in France, coming directly between the two major pillars of Renoir's filmography: La grande illusion, his sweeping anti-war statement, and The Rules of the Game, his definitive satire of the French bourgeoisie. The latter of these would be banned in France, making him persona non grata in the world of French cinema and causing him to leave France for an unsuccessful career in Hollywood. It would take decades for Renoir's French films of the 1930s to be reappraised by a new generations of cinephiles, but for a brief moment, La bête humaine placed him at the forefront of French filmmakers, and defined the French poetic realist movement at its height.