After making the schoolboy error of falling in love with the femme-fatale (Severine), Jacques is then manipulated into killing his new lover's husband. But is she telling the truth? Will he go through with it?
Jean Renoir's first major commercial success came about largely because Jean Gabin wanted to fulfil a childhood ambition to drive a train. Basing his screenplay on a cursory perusal of Emile Zola's 1869 novel, Renoir played down the Lantier family's history of alcoholism and concentrated instead on the intensity of the lovers' passion and the authenticity of the rail workers' environs. Thus, he not only captured the spirit of his source, but by shooting on location around Le Havre and Paris's Gare Saint-Lazare, he also achieved a grimy naturalist lyricism that heightened the picture's emotive potency.Yet while Renoir was more interested in the authenticity of the setting than the mechanics of the plot, the film still contains several standout set-pieces, including the killing of Grandmorin (Jacques Berlioz) behind the train compartment blinds, Gabin and Simone's assignation in the rail sheds during a downpour, and Gabin's final acts of uncontrollable rage and bitter regret.
Leaving Gabin to essay his trademark flawed everyman, Renoir lavished attention on his female leads. But, while he reined in Simone Simon's feline sensuality to emphasise the lethal innocence of her femme fatality, he highlighted the locomotive's sexual symbolism and lit La Lison as though it was a lissom diva.
Fritz Lang was permitted no such latitude when he remade La Bête Humaine as Human Desire in 1954, by which time it had already exerted a considerable influence on Hollywood film noir. But, this was very much a feature that reflected its times. Along with another 1938 Gabin vehicle, Marcel Carné's Quai des Brumes, it exuded the pre-war pessimism of a nation that could see its impending fate in that of Gabin's doomed tragic heroes.
However, Renoir captured the anxiety of a society teetering on the brink with even more power and prescience in his next feature, La Règle du Jeu.
After helping to kick-start film-noir in 40's America, La Bete Humaine has endured the years and is still as relevant and as watchable as ever. Matinee Idol Gabin's performance in particular is outstanding, playing a crazed killer with surprising ease.