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PÃ©pÃ© le Moko (1937)
Pépé le Moko (French for "Pépé, the Toulon man") is a 1937 French film directed by Julien Duvivier and starring Jean Gabin. It depicts an infamous gangster, Pépé le Moko ('Moko' is slang for a man from Toulon) who tries to escape the police by hiding in the casbah of the city of Algiers. The film is based on Henri La Barthe's novel of the same name; La Barthe contributed to the screenplay under the pseudonym "Détective Ashelbé". Pépé le Moko is an example of the 1930s French movement known as poetic realism, which combines gritty realism with occasional flashes of unusual cinematic tricks. The film is often seen as an early precursor of film noir. The film was remade in America in 1938 as Algiers, starring Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer, and again in 1948 as Casbah, a musical starring Tony Martin, Märta Torén, Yvonne de Carlo, and Peter Lorre. English author Graham Greene in a review of the film stated "One of the most exciting and moving films I can remember seeing... Raises the thriller to a poetic level!" According to a BBC documentary, it served as inspiration for Greene's acclaimed novel, The Third Man.
1937's Pépé le Moko was directed by Julien Duvivier and was an immediate critical and box office success. Viewed in hindsight it's easy to see that the film captures a few stylistic aspects important to the French cinema and stands as a major influence to Hollywood in the 1940s; particularly poetic realism, crime noir, and the policier genre (i.e. cops and robbers). Poetic realism in this case is closer to fatalistic romanticism, which never really got a foothold in Hollywood, but the noir characteristics and the policier aspect was played out throughout the 1940s and '50s and goes on straight through to today. The film spawned two Hollywood remakes and there are also obvious parallels with Casablanca, which came out in 1942.
Pépé -- played by the handsome French movie star Jean Gabin -- is a Paris exile who has become a renowned criminal and is now living among the culturally teeming labyrinthine streets of the Casbah in Algeria. In the open air market atmosphere Pépé stays confined among his cohorts, where he is protected. So when the cops come looking for him, he gets promptly warned and is able to quickly hide away.
But the cops aren't sure how to capture him, and in some cases they actually respect and revere him to much to do anything about it. Even the policeman (Lucas Gridoux) who inspects the area is one of Pépé's most trusted friends. This is the kind of movie where the bad guy is the good guy in our eyes.
But Pépé cannot live out this existence forever. He longs to return to the streets of Paris. So when a beautiful woman from Paris named Gaby (Mireille Balin) -- accompanied by a rich entourage -- comes into his territory, Pépé takes notice. He meets Gaby and there is an immediate spark. They talk about Paris and soon are planning risky night time liaisons.
More than a straightforward gangster film, Pépé le Moko is a film drenched in the mood and tone of the romanticized French colonialist world. The film is not only about nostalgia for a lost time, but seen today it evokes a romantic period far removed from today's 21st century world. It's also essential to French cinema in the 1930s: The Casbah location is really just a movie set peopled by a bunch of remarkable character actors.
Pépé longs to leave the Casbah but he knows that once he sets foot out of his world he will be captured and imprisoned by the authorities. And because of this the root of the movie is about betrayal. Many of those close to Pépé are willing to help in his capture but he knows whom he can and cannot trust. For this reason his future is as much about preordained fate as it is about who will turn on him. Pépé knows that once he lets down his guard he will become vulnerable - yet he knows that he has control over this fate and can dictate his own capture. Once Pépé sets his sights on returning to Paris with Gaby, he will accept no other option. And this is where the fate of love comes along to bite him.
The DVD released by Criterion is excellent. The print goes back and forth between excellent and slightly out-of-focus (which is due to the print from which they did the transfer). The extras include a 30-minute documentary about Jean Gabin as well as a 15-minute vintage interview with director Julien Duvivier. Included too is a lot of background information about the film. There is also a good essay by Michael Atkinson who makes a persuasive argument that Pépé le Moko paved the way not only for film noir but for the personas of such actors as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen, and Bruce Willis. Maybe that's overstating it a bit but there is no question that Pépé le Moko is not only one of the best French films of the 1930s, but an influential one as well.