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Saturday 10 October 2009

The Human Beast (1938)

Director: Jean Renoir
Stars: Jean Gabin, Simone Simon and Fernand Ledoux
Pairing Jean Renoir with Jean Gabin was a pretty powerful thing in the thirties, their last film together being Grand Illusion in 1937, one of the greatest films in French cinema, not that Renoir, Gabin or France are short of great films. Gabin had been in the movies since 1928 but his golden era was the late thirties, with three films for Renoir (the first was The Lower Depths), along with classics like Pépé le Moko, Port of Shadows and Daybreak. This one comes right in between the latter pair. Renoir's next film would be The Rules of the Game, one of that elite company of films that have been described as the greatest ever made. I wasn't bowled over by it, but I've only seen it once and it's also often described as a film that you need to see more than once.

Gabin plays an engineer called Jacques Lantier, who drives a train called Lison. As he explains it, you can't call someone you love by a number and he often says that he's married to his train. Lison is a dark, dirty and and noisy thing, when you're not riding in it as a passenger and there are some inventive shots to prove it. Renoir has cameras put on the side of the train, both high up and low down, and on the front too so we can see things like the end of the tunnel approaching. It's a busy job for Lantier, even though it's so noisy that we get no dialogue until Lison pulls into Le Havre.

He's very good at what he does but he still ends up with an overheated axle that strands him in Le Havre for 36 hours. Interestingly the cost will come out of his own pocket, but it can work both ways: another driver made a lot of money by having the wind behind him all the way and using a lot less coal. It's a concept that sounds fine on paper but good grief, look at the potential for abuse! What a temptation it must have been for drivers to ignore the long term integrity of their train and skimp anywhere they could just to make a quick franc. Of course Lantier, married to his train Lison, wouldn't dream of doing such a thing.
We do discover that he has a dark side though. He apparently has attacks that have doctors mystified, headaches and fevers and a cloud over his eyes. These are what make him look like a frightened animal, hence the title of the film, La bête humaine in the original French. The cloud over his eyes is a dangerous cloud, prompting him to commit acts of violence that he abhors, though he mostly has it in check nowadays. He visits his godmother and her lovely daughter, a girl who he loves but still attempts to strangle until a train rushes past and brings him to his senses. It's all part of his illness, which the introductory passage from Emile Zola's source novel, describes as a 'hereditary flaw'. He doesn't drink because he'd go crazy with even a little alcohol inside him, after generations of drunkards who poisoned his blood. Apparently it's their fault.

Back in Le Havre is Roubaud, the stationmaster, and his wife, Séverine, played by Fernand Ledoux and the lovely Simone Simon respectively. Roubaud is a capable man, who knows everyone except the man he castigates for having a dog in the compartment. It's against the rules and he's investigating a complaint, but the man is a powerful sugar tycoon who has already got two people fired. Luckily for him, Séverine's godfather is the powerful Grandmorin, who can call a couple of people and make the whole incident go away.

There's a dark side here too, as Roubaud finally discovers when he suggests that Grandmorin may be his wife's father, given that her mother was a maid at his mansion and he slept with anyone with legs. She is horrified at that suggestion, because she used to be his mistress. This is France, after all. Never less than a jealous man, Roubaud is even more horrified when he realises the truth. And forty minutes in we end all this buildup with a murder. Grandmorin is heading out to his mansion in the country even though Séverine declines his invitation to join him. Roubaud finds out about his wife being Grandmorin's mistress and knows precisely which train he'll be on, so he plans a confrontation, one that ends up in murder.

We don't see the murder so can't tell if it was premeditated or just a heat of the moment crime with the new knife Séverine had given him earlier in the day. Lantier sees them coming back down the corridor so doesn't take long to figure it out, but he keeps quiet because he's already fallen for Séverine. You can tell that this isn't going to end happily and it's here that I realised that I've seen this story before, as a Hollywood production called Human Desire, made by Fritz Lang a decade and a half later. I enjoyed Human Desire, but it pales in comparison with this French version, itself only the second attempt at Zola's story after a German silent version called Die Bestie im Menschen in 1920. The Argentinians would chime in in 1957 with La bestia humana and finally the Brits made a TV version in 1995 called Cruel Train.
The American version, albeit made by an expatriot German, was inevitably restricted by the Production Code. While some scenes play out precisely the same, including the opening ones with so much sound and no dialogue, there were also a number of changes to the story to better fit the time. All the characters have more depth in Renoir's version than Lang's, partly through the writing, partly through the acting and partly through which dark territory of the human heart could be ventured through and which couldn't.

Glenn Ford played Jean Gabin's role, and was pretty good at it, though a lesser name to be sure. Gloria Grahame took Simone Simon's role, again losing out in comparison, Simon being such a subtle femme fatale. Incidentally, the British title highlighted Séverine above Lantier, calling the film Judas Was a Woman. Only Broderick Crawford really stands up in comparison to his equivalent here, Fernand Ledoux, but he did so by changing the character, from a weak man whose attempts to stay decent end with a moment of crisis into a blustering thug.

It's always good to see Jean Gabin, a powerful and massively influential actor whose career ran from 1928 to 1976, though the five films I've seen of his were all released in the three year period between 1937 and 1939. He looked more like Spencer Tracy but acted more like classic Humphrey Bogart, though it could easily be said that Bogart acted like him, his most iconic roles being consistently a few years behind Gabin's and his portrayal of characters like Sam Spade and Rick Blaine surely full of Gabin influence.

It's also good to see Simone Simon, especially acting in her native language. This is the earliest I've seen her, though she did make some Hollywood movies over the previous couple of years. Three years later, and now a firm success after this film, she would return to Hollywood to make The Devil and Daniel Webster and Cat People, staying on to play in further Val Lewton productions like Mademoiselle Fifi and my favourite, The Curse of the Cat People. She'd go on to make further films in further countries: not just France and America, but also Germany and the UK. The last time I saw her was in 1950's La ronde for Max Ophüls and she was as lovely there as ever.

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