Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Some movies play as simple, wonderful stories without elaboration, and Pépé le Moko would
be one of these if it didn't represent a windfall for interpreters of cinema history. Much
copied by Hollywood, critics have listed it as the inspiration or seminal root of trends and
subgenres alike. Thankfully, it plays like a winner even in ignorance of all the hoopla. Jean Gabin
is a new kind of hardboiled-but-romantic anti-hero, and his exotic millieu would be imitated
countless times. The movie was made in 1937 but it has a timeless spirit.
Parisian expatriate and outlaw on the run Pépé le Moko (Jean Gabin) has reached
the only place he can hide, the Casbah section of French-administrated Algiers. Inspector Slimane
(Lucas Gridoux) sees Pepe every day, but they have a gentleman's arrangement. Pépé would seem to
be untouchable, running his little gang and living with Inès (Line Noro), but he has a
weakness personified by the beautiful Gaby Gould (Mireille Balin). The consort of a wealthy tourist, she
meets Pépé on a visit to the Casbah, and makes a conquest. Gaby's intimacy with
Pépé's lost Paris is almost as seductive as she is, and soon Pépé's risking
his neck just to see her - a weakness that Slimane hopes to use to spring his trap.
The American remake Algiers, with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, is no longer a particularly
well-known title, but Julien Duvivier's original Pépé le Moko is almost exclusively the
film buffs willing to sit through the miserable 16mm prints that were available. With this sparkling
DVD, Criterion has rejuvenated a classic.
Hollywood has sought to replicate the sultry mood of this subtropical pot-boiler through 1001 variations
about desperate characters who find romance in an exotic, foreign locale of intrigue and
deception. Casablanca, Sirocco, Istanbul, and dozens of other pictures ladled on the local color
but were prohibited from showing the explicit vice and corruption of Pépé's Casbah millieu -
easygoing prostitutes in the doorways, and the heroine a kept woman chafing at the reins of her
sugar daddy 'friend'. The cops play shady games with informers, knowing they can't wrest Pépé from
the twisted catacombs and myriad passageways of the Casbah: the locals love Pépé and protect him.
Pépé is the kingpin of a town he cannot leave, without risking capture by the ever-watchful flics.
His loyal gang includes a youngster he's trying to train properly (Gilbert Gil), and an untrustworthy
snitch (Charpin) who will gum up the works. Slimane's plans all fail, even as they make Pépé seem
more and more like a prisoner in his hilltop kingdom. Only a skirt can bring down the great lover.
Pépé le Moko is almost a reworking of King Kong. Carl Denham knows that Kong is
unassailable while in his mountain fortress, and uses beauty to lure him out where the little men can deal
with him. Likewise, Slimane takes advantage of Pépé's growing
obsession with Gaby, and prepares a trap for a king.
Gabin's Pépé is more than a tough guy, he's a working-class thief and murderer with a memory of
lost opportunities and a happier past, all represented by his beloved Paris. When Gaby recites the
streets and boroughs of the capital, it's like music to Pépé's ears, an aphrodesiac. Nothing could
get him off the hill, where a 'whole army couldn't get at him', except his infatuation for the
Duvivier makes sure the meeting of the lovers is invested with erotic detail - with sensuous closeups of
eyes, lips &
cigarettes - and allows the couple to meet and part a few times more. Pépé lets himself in for a
fatal betrayal, but in the end he has only himself to blame. The toughest guy in the world throws
his life away for a dream of love. What could be more romantic? He's an early example of a classic
film noir romantic loser; the film itself isn't noir, however.
Pépé le Moko takes place almost entirely in the Casbah, stunningly recreated from sets and
a few matte paintings. When Gillo Pontecorvo later filmed The Battle of Algiers in the real
locale, it looked much the same. The mix of cultures and languages helps the mood, as do the many
exotic women to be had in every direction; the Casbah looks like a great place to hang out, even
if it might not all smell very good.
Jean Gabin's passive but soulful face melted many a heart, and cemented his ascent from star to
icon. Dark-eyed Mirelle Balin fits the bill as the mysterious woman. Her features can look odd in
some shots, especially her shaved eyebrows and exaggerated makeup, but she has what it takes to
charm the Parisian bandit-casanova.
Criterion's DVD of Pépé le Moko is a notable revival. The image is restored from materials
better than anything seen here in decades - I remember watching the show in film school and nodding
at the lecturer, taking his word that the film was attractive-looking. The redone subtitles actually
translate the dialogue instead of the bare gist of the words, revealing to us non-French speakers a clever
and sophisticated script. The show is uncut at 94 minutes.
The extras have what it takes to attract the curious film lover, too. There's a 1962 interview with
Julien Duvivier, and an excerpt from a 1978 tv docu on Gabin. A BFI film about this title discusses
the story's locale and pulp novel background. A collage of clips and comparisons chart the
significance of the film, from scenes in Algiers copied shot for shot, to the fact that
the Warner's cartoon character Pépé le Pew is a Moko spin-off. Michael Atkinson
provides liner notes.
Unfortunately, Gabin doesn't say the immortal words 'Come with me to the Casbah' here. I'm not
sure Boyer says them in the remake either. They may have to be chalked up to Pépé le Pew.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pépé le Moko rates:
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 16, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson