Pépé le Moko

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One of the great French “poetic realist” movies of the 1930s, Pépé le Moko is also a chance to see Jean Gabin at Peak Gabin, as the much-admired, much-feared man all men want to be and all women want to be with – as the saying goes.

He’s a good bad guy, a kind of Robin Hood, but whereas Robin was happy in Sherwood Forest, Pépé is beginning to bridle at his confinement in French colonial Algiers, in the Casbah, the ramshackle part of town that’s a no-go area for the colonial authorities, who badly want Pépé but can’t touch him while he’s on his turf.

Homesick Pépé’s yearning for the sights, sounds and smells of Paris becomes unbearable when a bunch of swells arrive from France, among them Gaby (Mireille Balin), a woman instantly attracted to Pépé, as he is to her. It’s Gaby who will eventually, unwittingly, lure Pépé out of the Casbah, and who will seal his fate.

So, there’s Pépé and Gaby, and around them the slippery Inspector Slimane (a sweaty Lucas Gridoux), a cop whose unctuousness allows him to wriggle through the Casbah unmolested, plus various smalltime hoodlums, all in thrall to Pépé. But there’s another story being told here too. The heartfelt tragedy of Inès, the gypsy who has been Pépé’s girl until the hotter, richer, whiter Gaby comes along and turns his head. A fantastic performance by Line Noro, all flashing eyes and despair.

The amount of screen time Inès gets is unusual but she’s emblematic of the whole movie, which has an earthy, almost documentary realism (plus “poetics”) as its aim. Director Julien Duvivier kicks everything off with some nakedly documentary footage of the Casbah itself, before backing off a touch into a semi-documentary style, and then takes another step back after shifting from location shooting in Algiers to a studio outside Paris where a mock-up of the Casbah stands in for the real thing.

Inès begs Pépé not to leave her
Inès begs Pépé not to leave her

The bulk of the film is shot on the studio lot, and obviously so, but Duvivier takes pains to keep things realistic, using his camera to range about and drink in the detail of the carefully crafted sets. His casting of side characters is inspired. They have faces that tell stories, even though most of them get no lines of dialogue. That grinning young man who just kind of hangs about at the edge of the frame whenever Pépé is with his gang, an idiot who’s thrown his lot in with the big boys but is out of his depth at every level – brilliant. Or the fading music hall star (played by fading music hall star Fréhel) who sings Pépé one of her old hits. Again, brilliant.

The emphasis on a kind of documentary realism makes it decades ahead of its time, but that’s also welded to a tough-guy aesthetic lifted from the Warner gangster movies of the 1930s. And over all that Duvivier also floats a layer of the picturesque – this is a beautifully lit film – and there are occasional visual digressions into a kind of filmic impressionism. (Compare this with the sort of film being made in the UK at the time, which look spectacularly wooden, static and inbred by comparison.)

Graham Greene, a film critic at the time, raved about it and said it raised “the thriller to a poetic level”. He’d later borrow its vibe for The Third Man. Other fans include Michael Curtiz, who borrowed wholesale from Pépé when shooting Casablanca.

The film was remade in the US the following year, as Algiers, with Charles Boyer as Pepe, Sigrid Urie as benighted Ines and Hedy Lamarr as Gaby (it was the film that made her a star). Producer Walter Wanger aimed to guarantee its success by buying up and destroying all existing prints of Pépé le Moko. He got most of them but the film survived, albeit in a slightly dog-eared form. The restoration is good, as far as it goes, though it’s sometimes blurry at the edges (the celluloid has been stretched out of shape by too many runs through a projector) and the sound is a touch tinny and scratchy.

Adjust your expectations down just a notch, in other words. It’s well worth it.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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