Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 2

Renoir opens La Bête Humaine with an assault to the senses, a giddy, glorious rush of momentum.  A train whistle screeches, steam hisses, wheels click rhythmically, and two train engineers speed towards the station in Le Havre. No rear projection, no dialogue, no story yet. Just the essence of cinema: motion. The landscape as a blur. The exhilarating rush of mechanical movement, manmade speed.


Lest we confuse movement with freedom, however, Renoir carefully cultivates our unease and laces the sequence with subtle intimations of doom. The first, out-of-context image of the film is the fire that powers the steam engine. Licking flames plus the piercing shriek of the whistle set an appropriately hellish tone for Émile Zola’s tale of roiling, violent passions.

As the train passes through a tunnel, a cut takes us from the engineers to total enfolding darkness. We’re lost. Then, in the far off distance, we see the light that draws nearer and nearer until the black muzzle of the train bursts through the semicircle of light, looking like nothing so much as an eclipse.

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Perhaps the great French director was also thinking of the words of his father when he filmed this scene. The impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir felt that the modernity of the locomotive—the distances it inserted into lives, the way it transformed time and space—eroded tradition and even the wholeness of a person’s self:

“The farmer’s wife who goes to the nearest market to sell her cheese is truly herself. But when she takes an express train, she loses her identity; she becomes the anonymous creature called a passenger.” (From Renoir, My Father.)

Just as the train moves forward with a seemingly unstoppable intent, plunging the viewer in darkness, dazzling him with its celerity, the story’s central character, Jacques Lantier, is the unhappy passenger of biology-as-destiny. The film’s epigraph even announces this theme of hereditary nature as an irresistible, almost mechanical, force:

“Sometimes he keenly felt this hereditary flaw, and it came to him that he was paying the price for others… fathers, grandfathers who drank… generations of drunkards who had poisoned his blood. His skull burst under the burden, the agony of a man forced to actions that overrode his will and for reasons which had disappeared within him.” (For this very rough translation, je vous rends mes excuses…)

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10 Favorite Femmes Fatales—in GIFs!

I never met a femme fatale I didn’t like. Whether they’re powdering their noses or filling their ex-lovers full of lead, the bad girls of noir still manage to draw my sympathy and admiration. Twisted, I know, but what’s the point of noir if it doesn’t tap into the darkest parts of our natures?

Let’s face it, film noir is a dame’s genre. Men of noirland might stumble around thinking they’re in control. However, more often than not, those hapless schmoes who pass for protagonists don’t realize they’re just playing a supporting role in somebody else’s plot—and that somebody is probably wearing lipstick and high heels.

Tumblr cannot hold them! Climbing up from the underbelly of Photoshop CS6! Here are 10 GIFs I made to celebrate my favorite dynamite dolls from classic noir…

Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) in Jack Bernhardt’s Decoy (1946)


“Reality? What do you know about reality?”

(You can stream Decoy right now on Warner Archive Instant. I can hardly think of a better way to pass 70 minutes in Noirvember!)

Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946)


“I’m poison, Swede, to myself and everybody around me! I’d be afraid to go with anyone I love for the harm I do to them!”

Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1948)


“I told you, you know nothing about wickedness.”

Louise Howell (Joan Crawford) in Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed (1947)


“Go ahead and kiss me. You don’t have to mean it.”

Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945)


“I’ll never let you go. Never, never, never…”

Vera (Ann Savage) in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945)


“Shut up. You’re a cheap crook and you killed him. For two cents I’d change my mind and turn ya in. I don’t like you!” 

(You can watch Detour on YouTube for free!)

Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) in Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950)


“I’ve been kicked around all my life, and, from now on, I’m gonna start kicking back.”

(You can also stream Gun Crazy on Warner Archive Instant.)

Nancy (Laraine Day) in John Brahm’s The Locket (1946)


“I want you to want me, very much.”

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1945)


“We’re both rotten.”

Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1946)


“Don’t you see you’ve only me to make deals with now?”

Happy Noirvember, you molls and mugs. Now, who’s your favorite femme fatale?