Lantier (Jean Gabin) is a rail engineer who has no discernable life outside of his work. He even maintains that he is married to his locomotive. The opening credits allude to dark demons inside him, but they are nowhere to be seen as the film opens. Robaud (Fernand Ledoux) is a stationmaster married to Severine (Simone Simon), who seems a bit too young and beautiful for someone like him. Nonetheless, when we first meet these people they all appear to be content.
The “event” that starts the dominoes tumbling is insignificant - Robaud berates an unruly passenger who turns out to be a powerful businessman. Fearing that the man will make trouble for him, Robaud asks Severine to ask her wealthy godfather to intervene on his behalf. She does, but instead of moving forward, Robaud becomes obsessed with exactly what price his wife paid for his peace of mind. As he questions her, it becomes clear that Robaud has his own demons, and the contrast between the doting husband of the films opening and the violent cuckold presented here is startling.
Robaud decides that the godfather has to die for his sin, and has Severine arrange a rendezvous on a train. Robaud ambushes the adulterer in his compartment and stabs him to death. What I find fascinating about this crime is the motivations for binding his wife to the murder. She is present during the murder, and besides the fact that her involvement ensures her silence, there is also the idea that by killing her lover in front of her, he is rubbing her face in her infidelity. Severine, for her part, does not react with quite the horror and revulsion that we might expect. More like quiet resignation, perhaps, like she is somehow accepting of the penance.
The murder goes smoothly, except for one detail. When the killers emerge from the cabin, there is someone there, casually having a smoke – Lantier. The moment when the two confront Lantier in the narrow corridor is filmmaking at it’s best, as Severine sees him first, then Robaud gradually comes to the realization that she is looking at something, and then it hits them that this thing just got a lot more complicated. When the murder is discovered, Lantier starts to realize that he knows who the killers are, and that they must suspect he knows. When the police question him, he inexplicably says he saw nothing.
Lantier is the wild card here, and the killers are forced to make him an ally. The thing is, they can’t even begin to imagine the baggage their new partner has. As I mentioned above, the opening credits tip us off in advance about Lantier, and how he felt he was paying the price for the sins of the generations before him. It’s not immediately clear what that means, however. He seems normal enough with his railway buddies, but it’s in a meeting with an aunt early in the film that we start to see inside him. He encounters a girl who we surmise he has been involved with in the past, and as they draw close to a sexual encounter, he is suddenly overtaken by an impulse to kill her, but snaps out of it in time. In modern terms, we would say that Lantier is bipolar, and this knowledge casts new light on his loner lifestyle.
Now skip back the scene where the police interrogate him after the murder on the train. As he begins to talk, he makes eye contact with Severine, and Renoir lets the image of her face go out of focus for a second. It’s barely noticeable, but it’s a telling point of view shot that establishes a couple of things: First, that Lantier is attracted to this beautiful young woman, and second, we are seeing a possible hint of one of Lantiers murderous “black-outs.”
Severine starts a tentative friendship with Lantier, at first to ensure his complicity with the murder, but it gradually develops into some thing far more serious - a full-blown love affair. It’s during the development of this relationship that we start to see Severine more clearly. The two men have their issues, obviously, but what about her? Severine has her demons, as well. Trapped in an abusive marriage, she turns to another man who has the potential to be even worse. She seems to have a tendency towards self-destructive choices. During her time with Lantier, he shows an alarming fascination with the mechanics of the murder, but this doesn’t set off any alarms for her.
Lantier and Severine form a strange co-dependant union. She sees him as her salvation from the tyranny that she faces with her husband. He, in turn, probably believes that she can deliver him from the violent impulses in his head. It’s no surprise then, when these two damaged people decide to get rid of the one obstacle that keeps them apart – Robaud.
Lantier, however, finds himself unable to go through with it, and that tragically changes the dynamic with Severine. She looks at him differently from then on, and essentially ends the relationship. It’s only a matter of time then before Lantiers demons are released, and he commits an act from which there is go going back. He knows it, too.
It in the aftermath of Lantiers murder of Severine that my favorite images of LBM occur, as Lantier sorrowfully walks away from the murder scene, knife in hand. This is followed immediately by a shot of the broken Robaud standing in the same spot, looking at his murdered wife, and clutching a watch taken from the murdered godfather. It’s a beautifully lyrical way to tie the three principals together, and underscore the way that all three have been destroyed by their base urges.