La Bete Humaine (1938)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Crime Drama, Psychological Drama  |   Run Time - 99 min.  |   Countries - France   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Jean Renoir's masterful adaptation of the Emile Zola novel of heredity and fate has been cited as both a reflection of the fatalistic mood in France in the face of Nazi Germany's aggression and as a blueprint for many postwar film noirs. It's also part of a magnificent mini-run in Renoir's career, preceded by Grand Illusion and followed, two films later, by Rules of the Game. The film begins and ends with a train hurtling noisily down a track, the camera shooting from either the engineer's point of view or from the very front of the locomotive, and the sensation is one of imminent danger. Jean Gabin's Jacques Lantier is a man haunted by his family's history of alcoholism; although he is able to stay away from booze, he is still prone to seizures and blackouts. He accepts his fate as a damaged man, even rejecting love from a young woman who promises to be patient with him. Instead, his involvement with the self-absorbed Séverine (Simone Simon) and her jealous husband, the stationmaster Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), accelerates his sense of doom. The Roubauds are concealing a crime, and Jacques becomes their accomplice, falling in love with Séverine, whom he rightly senses is a damaged soul like himself. "I always got what I wanted," Séverine says in reference to her godfather, but we soon learn that the old man extracted something in return. Renoir sets much of the action on the train or in the railroad yards, an all-male preserve that becomes a trysting spot for Jacques and Séverine's first sexual encounter. Almost every scene is perfectly orchestrated, none better than a later post-coital conversation in which Jacques shows an unhealthy interest in how the Roubauds committed their crime and then Séverine sighs, "If my husband were out of the way..." Fans of Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Human Desire (Fritz Lang's take on Zola's story), and Body Heat will recognize that line, as well as Séverine's desperate attempt at a dance hall to brush off the persistent Jacques, "We have no future."