This month’s film is a genuine classic of French cinema and a cultural landmark of Gallic sentiment. To fully understand characters created in Hollywood by Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Robert Mitchum or even Al Pacino, you need first to be familiar with Jean Gabin’s archetype in Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier. 1937), a fledgling crime drama, made decades before the term ‘film noir’ was invented.
Gabin plays a tough Parisian, who has pulled off a bank heist and fled to Algiers. Now an exile in the Arab quarter, he heads a gang of criminals but his sense of hauteur is undermined by the minuteness of his empire. What is worse, his gang is full of would-be conspirators eager to sell him to the police. At least in the labyrinthine Casbah, Pépé is safe – that is until he falls in love with a playgirl visiting Algiers, who compels him to risk life and limb by leaving his haven.
In true French style, director Julien Duvivier explores the sovereignty of the heart – even in a brazen criminal. Perhaps more important than the story is the film’s themes and style: its use of shadows, its changes of light, its iconography of clocks. All these underline the inexorable passage of time: editing and camera angles suggest fate in a murder scene, for example, that seems to be witnessed from above by a statue of an angel; then there are the sweeping, panoramic shots of the Casbah, in which a maze of streets becomes a dizzying, kaleidoscopic, hypnotic dream that finally articulates the madness of love.
This visual lyricism is underpinned by a very French theme: according to the celebrated film director, Max Ophüls, “Everyone in the world has two fatherlands: his own and Paris.” And now recall that, famously in Casablanca, Rick (Bogart) would tell Ilsa, “We’ll always have Paris.” In Pépé le Moko these sentiments take the form of an old chanteuse in the Casbah who, with a sob in her throat, sings along to a gramophone record. Her voice has not changed even if she looks nothing like the picture on the wall, taken in her Parisian youth. And when Pépé and Gaby talk longingly of La Place Blanche where they both belong, we realise that Pépé may be safe in the Casbah’s world of criminals, but his heart is in Paris. It is not a simple desire that leads to Pépé’s downfall, so much as a complicated nostalgia; a longing for an unreachable past after which we all yearn.
Not only was this a landmark of French poetic realism, but it is also one of the most influential films of the 20th century for it infiltrated American culture: the US remake (Algiers, 1938: Charles Boyer, Hedy Lamarr), followed the original so slavishly (except for the changed ending, of course) that the producer was able to use generous amounts of stock footage from the original. It also inspired a 1948 musical, Casbah (starring Tony Martin, Yvonne De Carlo and Peter Lorre) and, of course, it inspired the writers of Casablanca (1942), which in its turn proved an inspiration to directors like Woody Allen and countless others.
It is ironic that the French – who were so in love with American gangster films of the 1930s that they copied them in the 1940s – actually made one of their own earlier, which wound up being a profound influence.
- The closest Pépé comes to a catch-phrase is when he says, ‘Blame it on the Casbah.’ Nevertheless, the invitation ‘Come with me to the Casbah’ (spoken only in trailers for its remake, Algiers, but not at all in either film), became a saying that promised exoticism and mystery. Warner Brothers appropriated it in their character Pepe le Pew, the Looney Toons cartoon skunk. In fact this cartoon spoof of Pépé le Moko, thought he was a cat and would often embrace kittens (who were alarmed by his fragrance) while intoning in his sexy accent, ‘Come weez me to ze Casbah’ – a great pick-up line that still never fails, I’m told (no matter what aftershave you use).
- Pépé le Moko is therefore a literally seminal and somewhat neglected cultural masterpiece. Adopting a plot from Henri La Barthe’s novel of the same name, its enlightened attitude to French Algeria shows a diverse array of people rubbing along together in a labyrinthine architectural setting that has provoked many academic interpretations – including post-colonial, anthropological and even Freudian readings over the years.
Inspecteur Slimane: Le Moko? The prince of the plunders! Fifteen convictions, 33 daylight robberies, two bank hold-ups and how about burglaries? We haven’t enough fingers in this room on which to count them all! How could he not be admired?
L’Arbi: I told you the truth!
Pépé le Moko: Find another truth!
L’Arbi: It’s the truth.
Pépé le Moko: Shut up!
L’Arbi: I swear on my father’s head!
Pépé le Moko: That’s no risk! He was guillotined.
For more detail check out this Criterion Collection essay, or this TCM article, this Phillip French’s Guardian DVD Club. or this excellent piece from Senses of Cinema, which articulates perfectly its complexity:
‘In its bleakness, Pépé le Moko fits into the classification of 1930s French poetic realism (or is it more accurately populist melodrama?). In most of these films, a proletarian protagonist is slated for inevitable destruction – absolutely reactionary in that it typifies the struggle for positive change as hopeless.
Like the other romantic heroes he played, Jean Gabin’s Pépé will not accept the fate that keeps him down – of course, the racist correlative to this is that he refuses to share the contemptible status of a native, an outcast, or an unfortunate. He wants what he feels is his due as a white Frenchman.’