Friday, September 16, 2011

Pepe Le Moko

I don't know if I ever would have stumbled upon Pepe le Moko if I wasn't consciously choosing to beef up my film noir knowledge.  First of all, it's not (strictly speaking) a noir.  Secondly, the cast and director were resolutely French; while Jean Gabin did come to Hollywood briefly, his star shined primarily in France.  It's not that I have anything against French proto-noirs from the late 1930s --- I just don't usually dip into that sub-sub-sub-genre for my viewing pleasure.  Thankfully, blahblahblah Toby included this in his Noir-a-Thon, because it piqued my interest and I ended up finding something pretty great here.  Oh, and full disclosure: I shamelessly stole a couple of screen shots from Toby's site for this review.

Before I get into the film, I wanted to point out how you (regardless of who you are) are familiar with Pepe le Moko.  This 1937 film was immediately remade by Hollywood as Algiers in 1938 (and also as a musical in 1948's Casbah).  "Oh, of course!  It's my love of Algiers that makes me familiar with this movie!"  Don't sass me, boy, I'm not done yet.  While Hollywood did change the title of the movie, they kept the name of the main character, Pepe le Moko.  The character's name and Charles Boyer's portrayal of Pepe inspired Mel Blanc's vocal stylings when Pepe le Pew was created in 1945.  So, in a roundabout way, this film led to the creation of the first sexual predator cartoon character.  The second, obviously, would be the Humping Robot.

Enough trivia!  On with the show!  Pepe le Moko (Jean Gabin) is a charming jewel thief who has pulled one heist too many; after his last big job in Algiers, he narrowly escaped the police by seeking refuge in the labyrinth of the Casbah.  If your knowledge of the Casbah begins and ends with the Clash song, it was a quasi-slum, filled with all sorts of unsavory characters and its winding streets were impossible to navigate by outsiders.
" just go down that alley, through the window, down the stairs to the rooftop, up the ladder..."
Unfortunately for Pepe, the police in Algiers are all too aware that he is hiding in the Casbah.  They realize that there is no way to arrest Pepe in the Casbah, though; it is far too easy for him to be tipped off and escape, and that's without dealing with the criminal element that enjoys attacking police anonymously from windows and rooftops.  They need to get Pepe out of the Casbah and into Algiers proper, but Pepe knows that, and they know he knows that.  It's too bad, since Pepe longs for his home town of Paris.  With that knowledge, a curious relationship has formed between Pepe and Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux).  Slimane hangs out in the Casbah frequently and even chats with Pepe on a regular basis, but he doesn't arrest anyone; he simply reminds Pepe that he will be the man who arrests the infamous thief...whenever that day comes.

That day might be closer than Pepe thinks.  While he has been safe being a big fish in a small pond for almost two years, the Casbah is starting to wear on him.  His gypsy lover (Line Noro) isn't enough to keep him satisfied, so Pepe charms and seduces any beauty he encounters.
She's got Betty Davis crazy eyes
Of course, this fuels their bickering and passionate (and very French) relationship; she is devoted to him, but knows she will lose him if he leaves the Casbah.  One evening, when some ignorant police try to raid the Casbah, Pepe accidentally encounters Gaby (Mirelle Balin), a socialite from Paris.  They immediately hit it off; she is pretty and wears fancy jewelry, he is handsome and likes to steal fancy jewelry.  But their mutual attraction ignites something far more dangerous inside Pepe than his love of theft: a desire to return to Paris.
Pepe le Moko, pouting at a city

While the acting in Pepe le Moko is, one the whole, not terribly impressive, there are some standout performances.  Jean Gabin was wonderful as Pepe.  It's difficult to be charming and dangerous, crafty and fatally flawed, but Gabin pulled it off.  Just look at him:
He's so cool, he paired a scarf with a suit, and nobody gives him an ounce of grief over it.  Nobody jokes about him using it to hide his cleavage, either.  Gabin's Pepe is a lover and a fighter, a lady's man and a chauvinistic pig --- I think my favorite line is when he states matter-of-factly that he doesn't listen to women when they speak.  He's the lovable rogue that could knife you at any moment.  While he does not have the presence or charisma of Gabin, I also enjoyed Lucas Gridoux as the clever (and arguably lazy) Inspector Slimane.  I typically enjoy enemies who maintain a relationship of mutual respect, and Gridoux's laid-back inspector was fun to watch.  The rest of the cast was less impressive, but they played their parts capably.  I was disappointed in the two main female roles, though.  Neither Gaby nor the gypsy really had a whole personality; even combined, I don't think they would have made a convincing character with depth.
"You're right!  If you look at her from the side, she is two-dimensional!"

This is the first French film I have watched from this time period, so I don't know how Julien Duvivier's work here fits into the larger picture of French filmmaking.  I do know this, though: it's reeeel purrty.  Claustrophobia is a difficult sensation to convey well on film, especially when the enclosed space is fairly large, like the Casbah.  Without any clumsy camera zooms or anything obvious, though, Duvivier made Pepe's need to escape the Casbah feel urgent enough to not seem incredibly stupid to the audience.  That is an accomplishment.  Duvivier did wonders with the lighting and framing of certain scenes.
While Pepe le Moko does not have the stark contrast of film noir, there are many scenes that use shadows quite effectively.  I'm not sure how much I like the very end of the movie, but it was pretty surprising and something that the Hays Code would not have allowed in Hollywood.

I don't have any strong complaints about this film, aside from the weak female roles.  I wish the movie wasn't framed as a romance, because it's misleading; Pepe's love was for his against-the-system lifestyle, not for a particular person.  I think this film would be infinitely more satisfying if that concept was explored more explicitly, because Pepe's romantic motives seem a little unrealistic.  And how could they make a movie about a criminal in the Casbah and not have a ridiculously awesome chase sequence through those winding alleys?  That was a missed opportunity.  That said, Pepe le Moko is a very well-made film with good direction and a stellar lead actor.  Genuinely good stuff.

The Clash - Rock The Casbah by zebenj


  1. I will definitely have to see this movie. The image captioned "Symbolism" is what did me in.

  2. Glad I could be of service. The nice thing about movies like Pepe le Moko is that you can watch them and enjoy them as fun stories, but also shout "I gots culture, bitches!" when you've finished it.

  3. another great review brian. i love your "two dimensional" caption!

    i am inclined to agree with your verdict on the "romance" angle it needed to be stronger or less prevelant but if you look at both woman as caricatures symbolic of pepe's two options - dowdy, boring and acceptable or glamourous and exciting it works well.

    the relationship between Pepe and Slimane is really something isn't it? Excellently foreshadowing Casablanca don't you think?