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Sunday, 7 January 2007

Pépé le Moko (1937)

The colonial French police have a tough job on their hands: to apprehend the notorious criminal Pépé le Moko, who is hiding somewhere in the notorious Casbah in Algiers, a winding maze of chaos where 40,000 people live in an area intended for 10,000. It could even be the perfect example of the famous description Obi Wan Kenobi gave to Mos Eisley Spaceport: 'a wretched hive of scum and villainy'. Pépé is wanted for many things and has been on the run for two years. The police know where he is and even see him on a daily basis but are completely unable to arrest him in such a location. Inspector Slimane must concoct a plan and be particularly cunning about it.

Pépé and Slimane appear to be symbiotic: each would be lesser for the absence of the other. There's a scene of genius early on when the police, at the instigation of Paris, raid the Casbah and don't come near picking him up. However Slimane knows exactly where he'll find him and is already there waiting at the house of Inez the gypsy when Pépé walks down the stairs from the roof with a bullet wound in his arm for her to dress. The two of them chat together and taunt each other with the utmost civility, while showing off in front of the lady who has found refuge there. This is cinematic magic, pure and simple.

The star of this film, Jean Gabin, is often referred to as the French Bogart, but when this film was inevitably remade by Hollywood, as Algiers only a year later, it was Charles Boyer who took the role and it's his accent that led to the creation of the cartoon character Pepe le Pew. Perhaps it's merely the timing: Bogart had been around for a while by then but was still trying to find his way out of playing second fiddle all the time to the real Hollywood gangsters, Cagney, Robinson and even George Raft.

Pépé's counterpart on the side of authority, Inspector Slimane, is just as fascinating to watch. He's played by an actor called Lucas Gridoux, who was apparently born Romanian, and who comes very close to stealing the show here, always calculating and recalculating so that we see only what he wants us to see. However beyond Gabin, who can dominate the screen merely by sitting in it looking at someone, everyone here seems to be a character actor. There are whole scenes full of things happening in the background because everyone else on the screen is staying so well in character. The cast fit the location so well it's almost unbelievable that they haven't lived in the Casbah all their lives.

The Casbah, of course, is not just an area of a city but a a lead actor all of its own, and I'm amazed at how well the filmmakers manage to show us not just its three dimensional complexity but also how the inhabitants are moving components of it. The cinematographer, the musical director and the lighting crew all deserve to be recognised for their work here, whoever they are, along with director Julien Duvivier, to make the city a living entity. I've seen it before, well depicted too, in The Battle of Algiers, but even that masterpiece didn't manage to approach what it becomes here. It's a magical amorphous beast.

Henri La Barthe, the writer of both the screenplay and the source novel, deserves a huge amount of credit himself, for everything this film is but not least because of the way he treates the women. They may not be the lead characters by any means but they're strong and powerful and they do exactly what they want.

I'm sure Criterion must have a version of this available in a great DVD edition and I'll be buying it for sure. This is awesome and it may well become one of my favourite movies. It's horrible to even think about it but when Hollywood remade this film, producer Walter Wanger tried to have all prints of the original destroyed, just as a few years later they would try the same with the original English version of Gaslight. In both instances, they thankfully failed in their task, and indeed it's Algiers that ironically is now available in dollar stores everywhere because it's lapsed into the public domain. I prefer Gaslight in the English original but the world would be a lesser place without Pépé le Moko.

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