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Pépé le Moko

Pépé le Moko
Criterion 172
1937 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 94 min. / Street Date January 7, 2003 / $29.95
Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin, Gabriel Gabrio, Lucas Gridoux, Gilbert Gil
Cinematography Marc Fossard, Jules Kruger
Film Editor Marguerite Beaugé
Original Music Vincent Scotto, Mohamed Yguerbouchen
Written by J. Constant, Julien Duvivier, Henri Jeanson and Henri La Barthe
Produced by Raymond & Robert Hakim
Directed by Julien Duvivier

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 property of 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 - with the 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 woman.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 16, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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