La Bête Humaine

Rarely do I tell people to watch the movie in preference to reading the book. However, that’s what I’m going to tell you. Jean Renoir in LA BÊTE HUMAINE (1938) and Fritz Lang in HUMAIN DESIRE (1954) both made better movies out of Émile Zola’s hot mess of a novel. Both directors possessed very different sensibilities and took very different interpretations of their source material. In the end, they managed to focus on the human heart of the story without getting sidetracked like Zola.

La Bête humaine, seventeenth in the Rougon-Macquart series, was published in 1890. It received conflicting reviews. Many objected to Zola’s apparent obsession with crimes, particularly murder, of which there are plenty in the narrative. They are committed with a variety of weapons--knives, poison, bludgeons, bare hands, even trains. Yet other reviews agreed with Zola and found the heart of humanity was beastly under a veneer of civilization. Were these rather beastly people really responsible for all their inability to contain their passions? Or were there forces, like the very locomotives and railways, hurtling people toward some uncontrollable, but inexorable doom?

From a narrative standpoint, Zola tries to do too much. He’s found a good metaphor for the hurrying pace of late 19th century France and by extension, the rest of the industrialized West--the train. It carries many people to and fro at great speed, yet leaves others behind only to watch opportunity roll away from them. The problem comes from the fact Zola never met a detail he didn’t like. He gets so wrapped up in the life of the railroad and its workers that the details bog down the narrative. The “death” of La Lison, the locomotive engine, is a masterpiece of both characterization and metaphor

Added to this are the outdated theories of criminality, though very real at the time. Zola probably is taking the piss on these risible ideas in a sly fashion. He’s not Jonathan Swift, but Zola does peel away the class distinctions. The gender ones are there, too. As well as greed and cupidity on all levels.

Jacques Lantier, the engineer, doesn’t get involved with women or drink because of ‘tainted blood’ within his family. Roubaud, the assistant station master married to Séverine, a woman fifteen years his junior, is thus drawn--”his rather squat head, with its low forehead, thick neck, and round ruddy face, lit by two large, keen eyes. His eyebrows joined in the middle, lending his forehead the bushy mark of the jealous man.” Just by looking at him, a person can judge him a possessive jerk. There are other instances where physiognomy shows, thus condemns, persons to criminality--like Flore, with Amazon’s arms and strength, loves only her cousin Jacques, but is denied. She develops a murderous agenda. 

Zola turns this around with the respectable. Grandmorin, the president of the railway, debauches women, like Séverine, very young. Does he look like a monster of depravity? No, but he is nonetheless. And the Cabinet Minister is no less corrupt and villainous, even if looks like an average, middle-aged member of the haute bourgeoisie.

The ins and outs of the French legal system, wherein the prosecutor, uses all these theories of criminality to wrong convict a man, and the corrupt French political system at the end of the Second Empire, are difficult to follow. The political system is exposed not only by the prosecutor who’s being leaned on from Paris, but also from Roubaud’s pimping of his wife to the Cabinet Minister. Séverine overplays her hand and brings suspicion upon herself, but it hardly makes a difference to the modern reader.

Both Renoir and Lang dispensed with most of the excesses of Zola’s naturalism and focused on the heart of the story--triangle of Roubaud, Séverine, and Lantier. They may have different names in Lang’s movie, but the essential and eternal triangle is the same.

Renoir was a very different director from Lang, and his film is the most faithful to Zola’s own humane understanding of human passions and failings. We are all human beasts, but Renoir treats that message with the same sympathy, if not empathy, that Zola does.

First, he keeps the railway as a central context, even if it’s the late 30s French national rail system. The life of railway, its very precision, is maintained. La Lison is still a character with Lantier’s love for the locomotive clear as daylight. Second, Roubaud and Lantier still represent criminal types, but without any of the heavy-handed explanations Zola provides. Flore is a very minor character with none of the Amazon-like attributes. 

Third--and here’s where Renoir and the actress Simone Simon really shine--Séverine begins with a kittenish happy innocence that covers the damage done her by Grandmorin. Roubaud wants her to talk to her godfather to get him out of jam, she doesn’t want to, and in the ensuring fight, the underage affair comes out. Roubaud forces her take part in the murder he plans for Grandmorin. They are seen by Lantier, played by Jean Gabin, who keeps his own mouth shut. For all that Roubaud pimps Séverine to Lantier, a genuine affection develops between Séverine and the engineer. She wants a friend, not a lover, and that suits Lantier--in the beginning. This being ‘noir avant la lettre’, friendship goes to love with predictable results. Séverine isn’t really at fault, she’s batted about like a cat’s toy by people stronger and more predatory than she, and her demise is tragic in the Greek sense. She cannot escape these outside forces, especially Lantier’s madness.

Fritz Lang’s sensibilities are colder and more cynical than Renoir’s. HUMAN DESIRE is a late noir, one of Lang’s last films, and it shows a great disillusionment with human nature. It’s cold, bare, and cruel. It’s much more a discourse on good and evil and free will.

Jeff Warren, played by an aloof Glenn Ford, is a returning Korean War veteran who happens to be a railroad engineer. He moves back in with friends who are good, solid moral people with a wholesome daughter Vera, who is now all grown up. Is this American life surface or reality? 

Carl Buckley is a brute and an alcohol who gets fired for insubordination. He then works his layabout, bored, but overtly sexual wife Vicki into going back to John Owens, a businessman she’d been dating previously to get him reinstated. Vicki does it, but Carl thinks she’s seduced Owens whom he kills in a jealous rage. 

HUMAN DESIRE is a true noir. Vicki, played to perfection by Gloria Graham, and Carl are the rotten ones, the ones who want success without work or honesty. It’s no surprise they turn on each other. Vicki seduces Jeff into a sordid affair--at first to keep him quiet after Owens’s death, but more to have him around to use then to kill Carl. She can pull Jeff’s strings, but in the end, he finds he cannot kill for her. He forces as much of the truth out of her as he can--she consistently lies--before walking away from her. She leaves Carl, but he comes after her and strangles her on the train.

Yes, you can choose between good and evil, but once that choice is made, there’s no going back. Your fate is sealed.

Lang uses the railroad context very differently than Zola or Renoir. It’s not the metaphor for modern life as it was for Zola, nor does it demonstrate precision and efficiency as it did for Renoir. It’s a source of honest jobs, of honest industry. Lang’s rail yard scenes are generally open and naturalistic, with bright California sun. The great exception is the night scene--something found in all three works--when Vicki and Jeff are talking and are nearly caught together in the rail yard. It’s a savage, scary scene, complete with fractured light. Jeff and Vicki scuttle about like furtive rats who would attack if the night guard cornered them.

Fritz Lang was at the end of his career and his spare, stripped down, stark film demonstrates a disillusionment with people, women in particular. Renoir and Zola never got to that level of cynicism. While both film versions are good, I vastly prefer the deeply flawed, but recognizably human beasts Renoir sets forth. His film might not have the technical mastery of Lang’s, but with Renoir, there is some hope, some optimism, even if it ends painfully. Lang gives no such modicum of optimism. Noir was truly his shade.

Copyright KG Whitehurst