A railroad engineer enters an affair with his friend's amoral wife.
Suzanne De Troeye
Suzanne De Troeye
Marguerite Houlet Renoir
La Bete Humaine
In an interview, Renoir described the genesis of the film: "Shortly before the war in 1939, Monsieur Hakim, a producer, had the idea of shooting The Human Beast. He had a feeling that Gabin would play the lead role. I don't know whether Hakim or Gabin came to me themselves, but in any case, Gabin asked to have me direct the film. Gabin came to see me and Hakim came to see me. I thought about it a little, I said, 'I'd like to know what it's all about, after all.' I have to admit that I hadn't read the novel. I skimmed over it quickly, it seemed fascinating, and I said, 'OK, let's do it.' We had to start right away. I'm very proud of the following athletic feat: I wrote the script in twelve days, which isn't bad! I brought it with me, but we didn't follow it, I'll tell you that right away. But we had it, it's always good to have a script when you begin a film, and we started the production. To prepare for it, Gabin and I wanted to learn a bit about railroads, about locomotives, because the locomotive is one of the most important characters in the film. It's basically a kind of triad of two women and Gabin. One of these two women is Simone Simon and the other woman is the locomotive. So Gabin, and [Julien] Carette as well, rode on locomotives, learned how to drive them. Gabin drove the train several times from Le Havre to Paris with some good chaps who didn't know they were being driven by a great actor. They may not have felt very comfortable with the idea, in any case, so it was better not to tell them."
Renoir found La Bete Humaine a difficult film to shoot because "much of it takes place on locomotives. You can't shoot on a locomotive the way you can in a studio. There was so much to install. I must say that the state railway system was marvelous, they helped us, gave us some extraordinary assistants who took part in the film, who advised us, who prevented us from making mistakes. Because here again I insisted on exterior reality. I wanted very much for it to be respected. Believe me, there isn't a detail in this film that isn't exact. They gave us a track that wasn't being used during the time we were shooting the film. On this track we put a train, composed of a locomotive, our character, the Lison, the one we photographed. Behind it, we had a flatcar on which we had two generators to provide the electricity. We lit the locomotive exactly as if it were a character in a studio: instruments, lights, backlighting, everything you need. And of course all that was connected with wires, with straps all that. It was all very complicated, because we were moving at sixty miles an hour! To reach sixty miles an hour in a hurry, we had another train push us from behind, so that we picked up speed quickly. We did it with two locomotives. We also had a few normal cars in which the actors could wash up, relax when they weren't shooting, reapply their makeup, have something to eat, and so on. It was all very organized. I must say that the photography was exciting and rather dangerous at times. My nephew, the cameraman, Claude Renoir, was almost knocked off once. He was in charge of a camera that was against the side of the locomotive. We had measured everything. The camera was fixed against the locomotive, but we had miscalculated, and the camera stuck out maybe one centimeter, and when we entered a tunnel - we were filming in a tunnel - the camera was knocked off and smashed. Luckily, Claude saw what was coming just before it happened, he guessed it, and he flattened himself against the train and wasn't knocked off, too. I have to tell you that Gabin and I had a great time with this film. It's wonderful to drive locomotives, it's an absolutely marvelous thing, and I don't think he's forgotten it. I haven't forgotten it, anyway. The other day, in fact, while looking through an old wallet, I found the card that allows me - I hope it's still valid, I plan on using it from time to time when the trains are full - to ask the engine crew for a place to sit."
For the role of femme fatale Séverine, Renoir chose Simone Simon, who had costarred with Gabin five years before in the film L'etoile de Valencia (1933); and, like Gabin, was a big box office star in France in 1938. She had just returned from an unsuccessful attempt at Hollywood stardom at 20th Century-Fox. Simon would return to Hollywood for another brief spell, which included the film for which she is best remembered: Cat People (1942). "One cause for discussion - not merely discussion, let's call it controversial conversation - with the producers - who understood immediately what I wanted to do, by the way - was the selection of the female role," said Renoir. "They wanted a woman who was clearly a vamp, you know, one of these dark women who you know right away is going to be dangerous, is going to spell catastrophe. I claimed, and I still claim, that vamps have to be played by women with innocent faces. Women with innocent faces are the most dangerous ones! Also, you don't expect it, so there is an element of surprise! I insisted that we use Simone Simon, which we did, and I don't think we were sorry."
Renoir had also worked with Jean Gabin before, in Les Bas-fonds (1936) and La Grande Illusion (1937) and the two remained lifelong friends. They would work together one more time on Renoir's 1954 film French Cancan. Unlike many directors, Renoir had a fondness for actors and would use the same ones over and over again as a sort of stock company. Included in this group was Julien Carette, who had already appeared in Renoir's films La Marseillaise (1938) and La Grande Illusion and would have a substantial part in his next, La Regle du Jeu (1939). Renoir himself would occasionally appear as an actor in his films, most notably as Octave in La Regle du Jeu. Here he played the small part of Cabuche, who is eventually charged with the murder committed by Roubaud.
The film won the 1939 Prix Melies Award, along with another Gabin film, Quai des brume; and was nominated for the 1939 Mussolini Cup at the Venice Film Festival. It was released in France on December 23, 1938, and released in the United States on February 19, 1940. The Variety critic in Paris wrote that "La Bete Humaine is French production at its best." Frank Nugent, reviewing the film for The New York Times for its American release in 1940, admitted that he found the film disturbing but compelling: "It is hardly a pretty picture, dealing as it does with a man whose tainted blood subjects him to fits of homicidal mania, with a woman of warped childhood who shares her husband's guilty secret of murder. Nor is it prettier in its scene-the drab railroad yards at Havre, the bare ugliness of third-rate pension, the soot and grime of a locomotive's cab, the rouged façade of a cheap dance-hall. Its lack of prettiness is neither in its favor nor against it....It is simply a story; a macabre, grim and oddly-fascinating story. Sitting here, a safe distance from it, we are not at all sure we entirely approve of it or of its telling. Its editing could have been smoother-which is another way of saying that Renoir jerks his camera, jumps a bit too quickly from scene to scene, doesn't always make clear why his people are behaving as they do. But sitting here is not quite the same as sitting in the theatre watching it. There we were conscious only of constant interest and absorption tinged with horror and an uncomfortable sense of dread. And deep down, of course, ungrudged admiration for Renoir's ability to seduce us into such a mood, for the performances which preserved it."
Producer: Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Emile Zola (novel); Denise Leblond (dialogue, uncredited); Jean Renoir (dialogue and screenplay, uncredited)
Cinematography: Curt Courant
Music: J. Kosma
Film Editing: Suzanne de Troeye, Marg. Houlet Renoir
Cast: Jean Gabin (Jacques Lantier), Simone Simon (Severine Roubaud), Ledoux Societaire de la Comedie Française (Roubaud), Blanchette Brunoy (Flore), Gerard Landry (Le fils Dauvergne), Jenny Helia (Philomène Sauvagnat), Colette Regis (Victoire Pecqueux), Claire Gerard (Une voyageuse), Germaine Clasis (Tante Phasie - la marraine de Lantier), Berlioz (Grandmorin).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Renoir on Renoir by Jean Renoir
World's Coolest Movie Star: The Complete 95 Films (and Legend) Jean Gabin by Charles Zigman
The New York Times film review, Zola's 'The Human Beast' Comes to 55th Street as a Somber and Powerful French Film by Jean Renoir by Frank Nugent, February 20, 1940