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La bête humaine (1938)

Not Rated | | Crime, Drama | 19 February 1940 (USA)
In this classic adaptation of Emile Zola's novel, a tortured train engineer falls in love with a troubled married woman who has helped her husband commit a murder.



(novel), (screenplay)

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Cast overview, first billed only:
Roubaud (as Ledoux sociétaire de la Comédie-Française)
Blanchette Brunoy ...
Gérard Landry ...
Le fils Dauvergne (as Gerard Landry)
Jenny Hélia ...
Philomène Sauvagnat (as Jenny Helia)
Colette Régis ...
Victoire Pecqueux (as Colette Regis)
Claire Gérard ...
Une voyageuse (as Claire Gerard)
Charlotte Clasis ...
Tante Phasie, la marraine de Lantier (as Germaine Clasis)
Jacques Berlioz ...
Grandmorin (as Berlioz)
Tony Corteggiani ...
Dabadie, le chef de section (as Cortegianni)
André Tavernier ...
Le juge d'instruction Denizet
Marcel Pérès ...
Un lampiste (as Perez)
Pecqueux (as Carette)


Jacques Lantier is a train engineer who is prone to violent seizures, a condition he attributes to his forefathers' habit of excessive drinking. Roubaud is a train conductor on the same railroad that Lantier works on, married to the much younger Séverine. When Roubaud catches wind of his wife's affair with her godfather, the wealthy M. Grandmorin, he kills him during a train journey in a fit of jealousy. He makes sure that Séverine is also present, making her an accomplice to murder. Lantier, despite having witnessed them quite clearly in the train corridor, hides the fact during the investigation as he is attracted to Séverine. They both begin an affair, all the while Roubaud becomes increasingly withdrawn and starts to gamble. Séverine urges Lantier to kill her husband so that they would be free but she is unaware of Lantier's unfortunate condition. Written by Soumitra

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


From the novel "La Bete Humaine" a drama of consuming passions, directed by Jean Renoir


Crime | Drama


Not Rated | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

19 February 1940 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

La Bête Humaine  »

Company Credits

Production Co:

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

(RCA Sound System)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


Lison is also the name of a station on the line Paris Saint-Lazare Cherbourg. See more »


Jacques Lantier: I can't go on. I can't go on.
See more »


Referenced in Hugo (2011) See more »


Le coeur de Ninon
Lyrics by Maurice Nouhaud (1900)
Music by E. Becucci (from waltz "Tesoro mio")
Sung by Marcel Veyran
See more »

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User Reviews

A Review Admittedly Bothered By Outside Influences
4 June 2010 | by (Cincinnati, OH, United States) – See all my reviews

The two most noted elements of Jean Renoir's classic "poetic realist" precursor to film noir are indeed the two elements I felt worked more as ends in themselves than seminal features of the story. They are the use of the train as "one of the film's main characters," as Renoir himself describes, and the characterization of Simone Simon's "femme fatale." There is genuinely palpable sensory vibrance in the extensive book-ending sequences of Jacques, played by Jean Gabin, and his best friend utterly obsessed by manning a steaming, chugging locomotive as it speeds down railroads, in and out of pitch black tunnels, and blackens their faces with the smoke it incessantly pumps into the sky. The flames of the furnace, the peripheral landscape speeding by. We have the feeling not of watching reality but of being occupied by it, a feeling prolonged as we experience, as if for the first time, the impact of abruptly emerging from a tunnel, ultimately screeching to a halt in the linear spectacle of a vast rail yard.

I suppose the speeding train is supposed to spark the fierce percussion that outlines the film. Other than these two extended set pieces, La Bete Humaine is a succession of mercurial sketches. It all flows from labor and of the limited time stolen from labor. It's a film of hurried transitions, where all appear to be perpetually passing through doors or climbing stairs or peering out windows. Volumes are spoken when the seductive wife of one of Jacques' colleagues is greeted into her lustful godfather's study while the door is warily closed behind her. A reckless Jacques flees the dance hall unobserved by the dancers, engrossed in their ecstasy. I was intrigued that we see the moments before and after all the murders and seductions but not they themselves. So many crisp exchanges of glances. The blackening impact of a wife's chance admission is found in the way she and her aggressively jealous husband can't bear to look each other in the eye.

Uncharacteristically of me, I found the remake much more affecting. Fritz Lang's Human Desire is, to me, the stronger film in terms of character. La Bete Humaine gets its themes across in its own restless way, but the result is lightweight in effect, while Lang's 1954 version is unyielding in depicting the spiritual isolation of the characters. He punctuates the dramatic action with threatening shots of the many railroad tracks interlacing and breaking away. He needs not brandish any certainty of intention for them to act as metaphor for the characters' paths tying themselves in knots. Lang remained in the shadows as a more effective way of showcasing a distinctive style. Strait-jacketing its insight and intensity, Human Desire is the more resonating parable for the shadows of human rationale and the distortion of the heart, and of desperate characters who lead disappointed lives.

Renoir cast Simone Simon as the adulterous wife at the center of Emile Zola's falling house of cards. He posits that the cute, innocent, kittenish women are the ones to watch out for because you are so enamored with their sweet and endearing nature that you would never suspect them of manipulating you. Well, that is very true. All of us, men and women alike, have encountered a female of this deceptive kind. She is a femme fatale in her own right. But Simon remains in the role of an exotic object, rather than meeting the male characters on their own level, the way Gloria Grahame does in Human Desire. Grahame was always seductive enough to make you crazy, but so audacious. There wasn't a demure bone in her ferociously sexy body, but that made her even more effectively cunning and guileful. She came at her male puppets headlong, and matched their presence as well as their wits.

Grahame and Glenn Ford remain sympathetic in their own respective ways, though one is in some sense a champion and the other is an adversary, just like Gabin and Simon here, but Grahame and Ford evoke a more lucid understanding of their desires, and in the face of the cruelty and ruthlessness in getting what they want, regardless of how far they unravel each other's darkest colors, despite the scorpion-like sidestepping around their flirtatious relationship. Accordingly, Human Desire is a boldly familiarizing study of the sense of right and wrong, achieving its shadowy effect by aiming for your heart and loins rather than only your cerebrum. The development of the drama in La Bete Humaine could be totaled in roughly ten or fifteen close-ups. Renoir just bulks up the lonesome hardships of his three central characters in a wholly animated world of locations and things. If one doesn't totally take in the materiality of the rail yards, rooming quarters and dance halls, the incessant coming and going on platforms and in corridors, the buzz and capricious commotion grinding amidst any personal dilemmas, we can barely be so involved in the uninvited and unconscionable devastation brought down on the three jinxed protagonists.

At any rate, in its own right, La Bete Humaine is a fine piece of stylized realism about disillusionment, done with an embellished aestheticism that, while it draws more attention to its representational elements, is still what gave Renoir's great films Grand Illusion and The River such beauty, humor and vitality. It is best to see this film unfettered by Fritz Lang's later adaptation, to take into account all of the fixations of its own time and culture without any outside influences, to see it as its own (human) beast.

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