“Pecqueux, I have to tell you something. Don’t say a word and don’t move. I killed her. That’s right, I killed her. It’s all over. I’ll never see her again. It’ll be the death of me, I know it. I couldn’t bear to hold her anymore. I loved her, you know? I loved her little hands most of all. But there’s one thing I don’t get: why haven’t they arrested me?”
‘La Bête Humaine’, directed by Jean Renoir in 1938, is a tight, noir-ish thriller that tells the story of a murder on a train: a man kills his wife’s lover and the wife falls for the train engineer who witnesses the murder. The engineer turns out to have his own particular psychological problems which lead to bad things happening to the wife. It’s a film that out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock, packed with ominous framing, violent events happening off-screen (and thus increasing the impact of their violence) and all through the image of a train. This is the really distinctive thing about Renoir’s movie, the way the train is used to underpin the sexuality and visceral physicality of the characters. Unlike his next movie, ‘La Règle du Jeu’, this is dark and humourless, but still has a sense of class and social status that makes his films so distinctive. Renoir always feels ahead of his time, his films are always morally and thematically balanced. For me, ‘La Bête Humaine’ doesn’t achieve the same sophistication as ‘La Grande Illusion’ or ‘La Règle du Jeu’, both acknowledged to be his masterpieces, but it does have touches of this genius. I think it’s the small, non-Hitchcock scenes that stand out for me: the engineer and his colleague cooking breakfast together and the weird, dead-eyed look of the engineer as he turns up for his last journey. In general, Renoir’s technical skills mean that this film is both perfectly paced and pitched, it may not have the political nuance of ‘La Grande Illusion’ or the sense of danger of ‘La Règle du Jeu’, but is does have a feeling of being a condensation of what makes the director so compelling.
Would I recommend it? Yes – for some reason I’m thinking that ‘Monsieur Verdoux’ would make an interesting double-bill, I think because of the darkness of the story and the presence of trains. I’d recommend watching Renoir’s more notable movies first though.