Adapted from Emile Zola’s novel and directed Jean Renoir, a train engineer falls in love with the wife who was involved with her husband in a murder.
The character Jacques Lantier is introduced by the author Zola as a man who has inherited basic instincts from the drinking of his ancestors.
A train is moving quickly and passing through tunnels driven by Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) and his assistant Pecqueux (Carette). They come into Le Havre and stop in the station. They check the axle-box which has overheated. The station master Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) asks about it, and Lantier says it is ruined. A woman complains, and Roubaud refuses to let a gentleman take his dog into the compartment. The man learns his name and threatens to report him. The complaining woman thanks Roubaud. Another man tells him that was Turlot, the sugar tycoon, and he may cause him to lose his job. Roubaud declines to play cards because his wife is waiting for him.
Roubaud walks home and greets his wife Severine Roubaud (Simone Simon) with a kiss. He says a VIP may make trouble for him, and he asks her to talk to her godfather. She recalls how she could get what she wanted from him. He suggests they go to Paris, and she could go shopping.
Lantier reports to the deputy station master that his locomotive needs a repair. He learns that the repair will take 36 hours, and he tells Pecqueux to let the fire go out. The two men wash up and change into clean clothes. Lantier is eating canned food and says he is married to his locomotive. Pecqueux is married to Victoire but also likes Philomene. Lantier says he is going to visit his godmother. Pecqueux asks a friend to tell his wife about the axle which will delay him two days.
Lantier finds his godmother asleep in a chair on the porch. She wakes up and is glad to see Jacques. She asks about his attacks which mystified the doctor, and he says he is better now. She says Flore is down by the river, and he goes to find her.
Flore (Blanchette Brunoy) is sitting in a row boat washing her feet. As she gets out of the boat, she sees two men watching her. One says they were watching her because she is pretty. The other tries to embrace her, and she pushes him into the river. She walks over to Lantier, and he says she has grown up. He touches her arms, and she says he has changed too. She walks away. He runs after her, and next to the railroad track he pushes her to the ground. When she stops resisting, he kisses her. He touches her chest and grabs her neck. A train comes by, and he stops. He walks away, and she calls to him. She sits next to him and asks if he acted that way because of his illness. He says yes and that it blurs his mind even though he does not drink. He blames his parents who left him with this burden. He tells Flore that he loves her. She loves him too and would like to be his wife. He asks her not to be angry with him.
The Roubauds arrive in Paris. Later he comes back to his place with bread and wine.
Severine goes to see her wealthy godfather Grandmorin (Berlioz), who kisses her on the cheek.
Roubaud watches trains from his window. Severine comes in with things she bought. He does not believe that she was shopping all that time. She embraces him and says she loves him. He gives her a hug, and she gives him a little present, which is a pocket knife. She says her godfather got in touch with Turlot and arranged everything. She says he invited her to visit him today in the country, but she refused. He asks what she is hiding and wonders if she is afraid that people will think that Grandmorin is her father because her mother was a maid for him. He says it would be good for them if she is his daughter. She looks in the mirror and wonders if it is true. He embraces her, and she breaks away, complaining that men have one-track minds. She discloses that Grandmorin gave her a ring when she turned sixteen. He says she made up another story about the ring and asks why she lied. He grabs her collar and pushes her away. She falls down and admits that it is true. He feels like a fool and says she is Grandmorin’s leftovers. He walks to the window and then asks if she was going to take the train. He gives her paper and a pen and tells her to write a note about taking a train and meeting someone. He says she will help him, and that will keep them together.
The Roubauds are sitting on the train. At the station Lantier boards the train for Le Havre and sees the Roubauds but goes to another compartment. Roubaud takes Severine to the compartment of Grandmorin. They go in, and he closes the curtains. Lantier is smoking and gets something in his eye. The Roubauds are coming back and pass by Lantier. In their compartment she says that he saw her. She goes out to have a word with him. He is wiping his eye but looks at her. She mentions the weather in Paris and then goes back to her compartment.
The train stops at the station. A worker calls the chief and shows him that the old man is dead. An inspector questions the passengers on the train. Lantier is asked if he saw anyone in the corridor. He looks at desperate Severine and says he had something in his eye. Cabuche (Jean Renoir) learns that Grandmorin was killed and said he had it coming, and there will be no more girls for him.
As Lantier returns to his room, he says he will not lose sleep over the murder. He asks Pecqueux if he knows Roubaud’s wife, and Pecqueux says her name is Severine. He says she worked at Grandmorin’s mansion and that her mother knew his wife. Lantier says that Grandmorin was stabbed to death.
Roubaud hides items they stole from Grandmorin and worries about her letter which may still be on his desk. She asks what will happen, and he says they will go on. She asks about Lantier. She suggests he burn the money. He refuses but says he will not spend it. She considers winning over Lantier.
In a park Severine asks Lantier if he told the truth to the inspector. He says no and believes she asked him not to with her look. He admits he thinks she is guilty, but she says she is not. She asks if he will hurt her. He says she can rest easy because he is the only one who saw her. He is her friend, and she can trust him. He takes her hands, and she asks him to let go but smiles.
In an office the inspector questions Lantier again, and he says he saw no one. Lantier goes out where the Roubauds are waiting. Roubaud questions him, and he tells him what he said.
The inspector questions Cabuche who knew Grandmorin about his mistress Louissette who worked for Grandmorin as a maid. He vehemently denies it. The inspector notes that he served five years for killing a man, but he replies that the man hit him first. He says that when he got out of jail, the town did not like him; but Louisette was nice to him, and they became friends. Nothing happened because she was too young. She went to work for Grandmorin, and one night she came to his cabin very distraught. He explodes in anger and says he should have killed him then. The inspector says Grandmorin was beyond reproach and asks if the warrant is ready. Outside a passenger says they are questioning Cabuche now. Inside the inspector tells Cabuche to admit that he killed him. He says it was not him, but he is arrested by the police as he resists.
In a home Lantier tells the Roubauds that he is worried about Cabuche being arrested because he would have to do something if he went to jail. He asks Severine about a photo of her with her godfather. Roubaud invites Lantier to visit them more often for better dinners than cafeteria food. Lantier shakes their hands, and she kisses him on the cheeks. Roubaud finds Dauvergne (Gerard Landry) at the door asking about embroidery, but Roubaud becomes jealous and questions his wife, telling the man to get out. He leaves a package and goes. Lantier tells Roubaud to calm down. He says goodbye and leaves. Roubaud asks Severine not to get angry at him. She says he makes her afraid. She sees him on the train, and she will never get over it. He can’t forget it either. He says he is going out to the café to see his friends, and he leaves.
Lantier sees Roubaud walking away and knocks on the door. Severine lets him in. He asks her about her husband. He asks her to come away with him because he loves her. She says he must not because she is incapable of loving anyone. She says her childhood was horrible, and she is not looking for a lover. She needs a friend to trust but not love. He says he understands and will be her friend.
Lantier is driving the train. He comes back at night and walks with Severine. He shows her the locomotive he loves. He kisses her hands, and she says they are dirty. She says she must go home.
Roubaud has been playing cards, and his friends leave.
In the cafeteria Pecqueux asks Lantier about the woman. Lantier has a date. He goes outside in the rain and finds Severine waiting for him. She says she loves him, and they kiss. They lay down and embrace. Later the rain has stopped. They embrace in their raincoats.
Roubaud comes home quietly. He finds the hidden items and removes some money. Severine calls him a thief, and he tells her to leave him alone. He says she may run off with Lantier, but she will come back to him.
Severine comes to see Lantier, and they embrace. He has food and wine for her, and they kiss. As they are laying down, she says she would like to run off with him. He asks why not and says that Roubaud killed Grandmorin. She says that Roubaud beat her because of his jealousy. Lantier says he still loves her. He is more bothered by her having been the old man’s mistress, but she says she loves only him. She says Roubaud killed him and that she only watched. Lantier asks how he killed him, and she says he used the knife she gave him. He questions her more and tells her not to lie. She says it was awful. She says only his love can help her forget. He says he needs her love too. He says he feels miserable. She wishes her husband were out of the way.
Severine meets Lantier by the trains. They walk together. She says there was a theft, and her husband will come. He looks in a puddle and picks up a lead pipe. She says she sees him coming alone. They kiss. Roubaud approaches with a lantern and walks by. Lantier goes to hit him with the pipe but does not. Roubaud keeps walking. Lantier goes back to her, but she leaves.
Lantier stops his locomotive, gets out, and checks it. At a concert in the railroad ballroom Pecqueux asks Lantier if it is all over. Severine is dancing with Dauvergne. Pecqueux says love is best early on when you are on your best behavior. He does not care for dancing; but he takes his wife out so she can dance. Victoire comments on Roubaud’s wife. Lantier walks over to Severine and stares at her. Then they dance together cheek to cheek. They walk outside, and he asks her if she cares for Dauvergne. She says no; he kissed only her hand. She admits he is in love with her, and she wonders what it would be like to love him, to start a new life. She is being honest and says they have no future but grief and sorrow. She says she can only go on until Roubaud kills her. Lantier tells her to leave him and come away with him. She says he would find her. He does not want to dance, and so she leaves, not wanting to dance with anyone else. Pecqueux asks Lantier to dance with Victoire, and he does so. She asks what is wrong, and he leaves.
Lantier goes into the Roubauds’ house, and Severine talks about her memories. He says they can be happy; he has dreamed about her. He kisses her and then gets a gun from a drawer. She says no; but he says it will look like a suicide. Roubaud is coming home, and she turns off the lights. She asks Jacques what is the matter. He chokes her, and she screams. He pushes her on the bed and hits her with the gun.
Pecqueux and his wife are enjoying the concert during a song about a sad love affair. Lantier goes out and walks on the railroad tracks. Roubaud opens the hiding place and takes out a watch. He looks in the bedroom, sees his wife, and cries. Lantier walks on the track.
The next day Pecqueux is asking where Lantier is. Lantier still in his suit arrives late, and Pecqueux gives him overalls to wear. They go to work on the locomotive. Lantier tells Pecqueux that he killed her even though it will be the death of him. He loved her. He does not know why they have not arrested him. Pecqueux suggests that he confess. Lantier starts the locomotive. The train speeds along the track. Lantier says he can’t go on, and they struggle. Lantier hits Pecqueux several times, stands up, and jumps off the train. Pecqueux gets up, stops the engine, and looks back. They find Lantier’s body, and Pecqueux closes his eyes. Pecqueux laments how his friend suffered.
This drama portrays three unhappy people who long for love but cannot seem to find it. The engineer has fits of madness and blames his parents while the station-master is jealous and blames his wife. She suffers from both of them and her own haunted past which makes her fear she will never escape. The results are tragic as the author implies that humans are bestial in their violence.