Pépé Le Moko (1937) is a classic work of French crime cinema and a film that would prove to be very influential on filmmakers, gaining praise from noted directors, as well as inspired Hollywood remakes (Algiers in 1938, the musical Casbah in 1948), helped spawn beloved Warner Bros. toon Pepe Le Pew, and may be the reason Casablanca got made.
Within the teeming, twisted streets of the Casbah resides Algiers most notorious and elusive criminal, Pepe Le Moko and his crew. While the police set up dragnets and use insiders to try to draw Pepe out, ultimately it is Inspector Slimane's keen insight that leads to his discovering Pepe's one weakness. Although he rules the underworld, Pepe longs for more; the Casbah is his protection but it is also his prison, so Slimane uses an attractive socialite, Gaby, as a lure to possibly make Pepe emerge from his hiding place.
Pepe is a charming anti-hero. He is like a spider at the center of the underworld, untouchable, no one is able to set foot inside his territory without his knowing it. He is intensely loyal to his friends, but those friends are his thugs, his muscle. The honor among thieves, as they say. His appeal lies in his masculinity, his take charge nature, his "get what I want" attitude, which makes him both attractive and deadly. Although completely misogynistic, it is this self-assured swagger that makes him a dashing romantic hero. Iconic French actor Jean Gabin smolders and infuses the role with charisma. There is little doubt that he is the heart of the film. Much like other classic anti-hero actors, such as, James Cagney in The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, Paul Muni in Scarface, or Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, there would be no film without his soul.
The script has some very wry dialogue, the kind, it seems, that we see so little of today. Choice bits include the police inspectors voice over when talking about the various denizens of the Casbah, remarking that some of the prostitutes are, "chasms of fat no one dare approach." Later he also proclaims that their failed shakedown, "wasn't bad for a fiasco." When Slimane asks one of Pepe's hookers, "He beats you?", she matter-of-factly replies, "Yes, it relaxes him."
The minor roles, from the haggard detectives, to Pepe's greasy hooker girlfriend, Inès, to Pepe's crew, are all very vivid faces, great character roles. But, beyond its interesting protagonist and cast, it is really the colorful locale and Jullen Duvivier's perfect direction that makes the film so engaging and why Pepe Le Moko proved to be so influential. You really feel the gritty surroundings and the offbeat love its downtrodden dwellers have for the place and its hero, Pepe.
While I had some misgivings about the lead female (Mireille Balin) and Pepe's instant chemistry with her, sort of "You like Paris? I like Paris. I guess we're in love.", I know myself well enough that much of my problems lie in the fact that she has that penciled-on thin eyebrow, sculpted curly hair, painted lips look so common in the thirties and forties that always reminds me of a cartoon witch. But, in one of the films better strokes, Pepe sees her sparkling jewels first and salivates over them before even noticing her face. Nothing sums up his character better. Overall it is a really engaging crime drama, sharp characters, crisp dialogue, and some fantastic sequences, and belongs among the best crime dramas of its time.
The DVD: Criterion Collection
Picture:Standard 1.33:1. I considered two things before reviewing the film- naturally, since it is a film from the thirties, I expected some age wear. Second, since it was Criterion, I expected to be surprised at how good it would look. Well, I was right.
For a film from the 1930's, Criterion's print holds up quite nicely and the age wear is pretty minimal. There is some erosion which remains fairly constant. It has been cleaned up, so any occurrence of dirt is fleeting. Overall, considering its age, the contrast and sharpness are all great. Once again, for film fans, the folks at Criterion deliver a pleasing effort.
Sound: French 1.0 Mono with optional white English subtitles. While the track is free of any glaring hiss or wear like pops, drop-off, and other disruptions, there is still only so far you can push a old mono track. That said, the track is very good, but, although clear, the dialogue and music/fx tracks weakness is due to their age and the fact that they lack the dynamics we've grown accustomed too.
Extras: Chapter Selections—Theatrical Trailer--- "The Original Pepe" text excerpt (from Ginette Vincendeau's book) examining the characters translation from novel to film.--- "Location, Location, Location" Once again from Vincendeau's book, examining Algiers as an exotic backdrop.--- "The Many Faces of Pepe". By far the most interesting supplement, shows how the film spawned remakes, parodies, influenced other films, and the highlight is a 20+ min scene comparison between the original film and its Hollywood remake Algiers, which borrowed from Pepe almost shot for shot.--- "Remembering Jean Gabin" (33:44) a 1978 Creative Arts tv doc interviewing friends and colleagues of the actor.--- Jullen Duvivier Interview" (10:28) Interview with the director from a French tv program called Cinepanorama. Very dated, but brief and interesting.
Conclusion: No doubt a solid, classic crime film. My interest in it is somewhat diluted by the fact that, after having seen so many films from the era beforehand, I can only take it as a noteworthy influence due to its reputation. Once again, Criterion delivers in its presentation. Fans of classic cinema and foreign film that are intrigued by the movie will find themselves satisfied by the presentation.