Pépé le Moko (1937)
By: Captain Red Eye on August 19, 2010  | 
DVD
Criterion | Region 1, NTSC | 4:3 | French DD 2.0 Mono | 94 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Julien Duvivier
Starring: Jean Gabin, Gabriel Gabrio
Screenplay: Julian Duvivier, Henri La Barthe, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson
Country: France
External Links
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Julien Duvivier's highly-regarded Pépé le Moko remains one of the most enduring works of 1930's French cinema, and in addition to introducing the world to leading man Jean Gabin also served as a precursor to the era of film noir. The movie, like numerous others of the period, derived its principal influences from crime fiction of 1920's and 1930's France, as well as sensationalist magazines and comic strips depicting slick, 'Americanised' gangsters, all of which served to glamorise the previously subterranean mileu of criminal life.

The story revolves around the notorious gangster Pépé (Gabin), a wanted man who has spent the past several years holed up in the Casbah of Algiers, a cluttered labryrinth of densely-packed streets, crumbling alleyways and underground hideouts. It's a refuge for the dissolute, the dispossessed and the damned, and Pépé fits right in, at point being described as the 'God' of this rabid warren. Despite being continually hunted by colonial police forces and the native Inspector Slimane life is quite bearable for the former Frenchman; he has access to booze, cards and women, the occasional heist with which to line his coffers and a local network of supporters and cronies that enable him to repeatedly, if sometimes narrowly, evade capture.

The bubble bursts when Pépé's path crosses that of Gaby (Mireille Balin), a coquettish Parisienne socialite who is touring the region with friends on the dime of her much older lover. Whilst dining in an exclusive restaurant in the gentrified section of Algiers, one of the party express their desire to brave 'the lice and the stench' of the Casbah and slum it with the district's most notorious resident. This they eventually do, and one glimpse at Gaby instantly reminds the criminal of everything he has forefeited for the sake of remaining free; his country, culture, and identity, not to mention the chance at any sort of meaningful future. In essence, of course, he isn't free at all, and as the realisation slowly dawns Pépé becomes increasingly obsessed with the woman who epitomises his longing for a homeland, and a life, which has become decidedly unattainable. All he has is the Casbah, with its ruined streets and ragtag assortment of misfits, and the knowledge drives him to torment.

Pépé le Moko's plot revolves inexorably around this historic quarter. Many of the film's characters, including the diligent Slimane, are unable to resist its allure. But whereas most residents are free to come and go as they please, Pépé is unable to escape even momentarily the confines of his decaying stronghold, not even to see his best friend Pierrot buried. His native lover Inèz knows this and uses the knowledge to taunt him: 'No more Paris, no more Marseille, nothing but the Casbah!' The designation 'Moko,' a slang term for one from Marseille, further emphasises Pépé's otherness and isolation. He is displaced, a true outsider.

Pépé le Moko makes no attempts at rationalising or exploring the motives behind French presence in 1930's Algiers, and actually seems to gloss over the fact that France is an occupying power almost entirely. In an early scene in which the voiceover informs us that the Casbah is home to 'blacks, Asians, Europeans, Slavs, the stateless' and others, noticeably absent is any mention of the Arab populace that has inhabited Algiers for centuries. The astute Slimane is continually mocked by French police officers for his foreignness and the film's portrayal of 'the Aryab,' a snivelling wretch who fails even at playing the informant, likewise does little to present the local Arab element in an authentic and empowering light.

Despite its apparent cynisism however, Pépé le Moko ultimately stands as a triumph of poetic realism. Gabin is riveting as the restless anti-hero, conjuring a character of distinct contrasts and impressively understated menace, and Lucas Gridoux is likewise fantastic as his counterpoint, the wily and devestatingly perceptive Inspector Slimane. The film balances each aspect of its storyline with a subtle ingenuity, and whether you regard the end result as a love story about crime or a gangster film about love, it's an impressive and deeply enjoyable outing.
Video
Aside from establishing shots and some exteriors Pépé le Moko was not in fact shot on location in Algiers but on a cleverly constructed studio set. Whilst serving to convey the overwhelming claustrophobia experienced by the film's protagonist, this approach also meant that the immediacy (not to mention the pungency) of the Casbah had to be recreated on a film set many hundreds of miles from the actual locale. The decision was Duvivier's; he had previously shot films on location in North Africa, though decided an artificially rendered set would provide fewer distractions and conjure an exaggerated sense of reality more in keeping with his poetic realist vision. Thus the Casbah, a uniquely Islamic medina standing on one of the finest and most historic sites on the Mediterranean, was painstakingly recreated on a studio set in the capital city of its colonial oppressor, underscoring, according to author Marco Brucher, 'the counterfeit nature of the Oriental milieu.'

At any rate the fully restored print looks fantastic, with few imperfections and admirable contrast, and the release also features revised and markedly more comprehensive subtitles than featured on prior editions.
Audio
The 2.0 soundtrack is fairly spartan, but its clarity and consistency are both excellent throughout.
Extra Features
The Criterion edition features a host of valuable extras, including a 33-minute excerpt from the 1978 documentary Remembering Jean Gabin, a ten-minute television interview with Duvivier that dates from 1962, a detailed video coparison between Pépé le Moko and the 1938 Hollywood remake Algiers, excerpts from Ginette Vincendeau's first rate BFI study of the film and the original French theatrical trailer.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
French cinema in recent decades hasn't wanted for depictions of the bygone days of empire. 1992, to take just one year, saw no fewer than four major works devoted to the era of French colonialism: Bernard Tavernier's documentary La guerre sans nom; Jean-Jacques Annaud's tale of an illicit interracial love affair L'amant; the Catherine Deneueve vehicle Indochine and Pierre Schoendoerffer's widely-lauded Dien Bien Phu, an unflinching depiction of the closing stages of the First Indochina War. Pépé le Moko is, however, more or less where it all started, and it remains a skilful and gratifying exploration of pre-noir gangsterism set against a complex contemporary backdrop of the French colonial psyche.

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