Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. France, 1938. Paris Film. Screenplay by Jean Renoir, dialogue by Denise Leblond, based on the novel by Emile Zola. Cinematography by Curt Courant. Produced by Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim. Music by Joseph Kosma. Production Design by Eugène Lourié. Film Editing by Suzanne de Troeye, Marguerite Renoir.
Jean Renoir adapts Emile Zola’s novel, paring it down to its melodramatic essentials without ever letting the result feel cheap or flimsy. Jean Gabin is terrific in the role that established him as a star, as a locomotive driver who is haunted by what he believes is the curse of the corrupt men he descends from, whom he blames for his violent seizures that see him periodically try to strangle women he is making love to. The train’s conductor (Fernand Ledoux) is a jealous man who is married to Simone Simon and is livid when he finds out that her wealthy old godfather has been taking sexual liberties with her, dragging her along with him on a train ride where he murders the old man and makes his wife an accessory as witness. Gabin sees them leaving the train compartment containing the body but tells the authorities nothing, instead beginning his own affair with Simon that eventually has them plotting to kill her husband. There’s light elements of romance and dark elements worthy of the best noir, it has a great deal of randomness in its plotting but, thanks to Renoir’s ability to focus on his characters’ humanity, it never devolves into a mess. The cinematography is rich and the performances provide plenty of reasons for why these actors eventually became icons.