This modern adaptation of Émile Zola’s hair-raising novel about a train engineer with an inbred tendency toward violence plays odd-man-out in the socially engaged, left-leaning humanist pics Jean Renoir made in the ‘30s. (And nothing like his earlier Zola adaptation, the eye-popping sophomore effort, NANA/’26.) But there’s little mystery to its place in Renoir’s line-up, Jean Gabin asked for him. France’s biggest star had just made two with Renoir (THE LOWER DEPTHS/’36; GRAND ILLUSION/’37) and they turned out pretty well . . . Besides, they’d get to play railroad engineer on those big locomotives. Sure enough, the opening reel is nothing but Gabin (with the superb Carette as stoker) taking a run into Le Havre under real steam, on real tracks & a real train. Thrilling stuff, simply as an actualité. And then the twisty plot of madness, jealousy, murder, and a femme fatale as ‘fatale’ as they get (sweet looking Simon Simone before she was Cat Woman in CAT PEOPLE/’42) kicks in. Zola’s great rolling storyline has, of course, been severely trimmed, and his appalling, nihilistic ending reduced to a personal tragedy, yet the story feels faithful in most of the important ways. Only Joseph Kosma’s punchy music score gets in the way with a few over-cooked chords. Critical theorists try to force this film into patterns that lean toward proto-film noir or French poetic-realism. (It’s film thesis heaven.) But neither really fit. If anything, it’s helpful to think of this as Renoir’s first (possibly greatest) Hollywood pic. So, naturally, when he did get to the States, he made nothing like it. (NOTE: Rewatched and thought of more to say . . . so, why not a second Write-Up. Different poster, too.)
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Halfway in, packing a bag to leave town, Gabin is revealed as the only actor in cinema history who knows how to properly fold a sportscoat for a suitcase. Flip one shoulder over the other so it’s turned inside out, then fold in thirds. No wrinkles. No wonder that notorious hausfrau Marlene Dietrich was nuts about the guy.
DOUBLE BILL: Fritz Lang, who had successfully remade Renoir’s early Talkie LA CHIENNE/’31 as SCARLET STREET/’45, had less luck turning this into HUMAN DESIRE/’54. It has its admirers, but the loss of visual control from his previous pic, THE BIG HEAT/’53, is palpable.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: It’s a bit of a cheat to simply suggest Zola’s original book . . . but what a read!