A Dream Where No Reality Can Be
I'm not sure I'd ever seen a Hedy Lamarr film before, and that means that my first thought of her is not for acting. Yes, she was a beautiful woman, and she does well enough here, but really, she is one of those counterexamples to the belief that beautiful women, and particularly women who use that beauty, are stupid. Indeed, the government told her she was more valuable to them during World War II as a pretty face selling war bonds than as an inventor. Despite that, some of you reading this are almost certainly doing so using technology with its roots in an invention she co-patented in 1942. I'll admit I don't entirely understand it; it seems to have something to do with the use of sound frequencies--originally player piano rolls, it seems--to shift radio transmission. Or something. Anyway, it gets used in Wi-fi. And cordless phones. Though, of course, the patent had long since been allowed to expire before that particular use was developed.
Here, Lamarr is the beautiful Gaby. She and a group of others are in Algiers on a bit of a lark from Paris. The notorious thieves' quarter of Algiers, the Casbah, is ruled by Pepe le Moko (Charles Boyer), a suave and debonair man who escaped to Algeria, then a French colony, after a major jewel heist. He and Gaby meet by coincidence, and he becomes fascinated with what she represents. She is a whiff of the home he so longs for. However, there is the jovial Inspector Slimane (Joseph Calleia), who respects Pepe even though he does not approve and must now actually work to catch him, as officers from Paris are leaning on him. There is a byzantine plot of some kind involving the hapless Pierrot (Johnny Downs). As things fall apart, Pepe clings to Gaby to the dismay of most of his associates and the despair of Ines (Sigrid Gurie). Rather than steal her jewels and run, as is expected of him, he circles her to his doom.
Really, the only one who seems unaware of just how trapped Pepe is, at least for most of the film, is Pepe. He only finally concedes it to Gaby, and he never really seems to acknowledge it to anyone else. I don't know if he actually believes he'll ever leave the Casbah, but the first step in his fate was fleeing there, not somewhere else. He does essentially rule the underworld, but of course that only makes him a target. He just doesn't take it seriously through most of the movie. It's all a game. Grandpere (Alan Hale, whose son resembles him so much that it's distracting here) complains that he must keep replacing doors, as the police keep breaking them down to get at Pepe whenever they think he's there. However, that does mean it's true that the police keep looking for him, and he can't just go about his life. Not that there's another life he would live, of course. Ines may think that he will settle down to a happy life with her, but Ines is only fooling herself on that account.
And, of course, there are the Parisians. The term is "slumming." There is an excitement to going into dangerous neighbourhoods and risking mugging. Now, not everyone in the Casbah is or was actually a criminal. The interrelation between poverty and crime is a lot more complicated than that. It is also true that the rich people are protected by the police. Let the people of the Casbah rob and murder one another; that's their affair and unimportant. Even let them commit crimes in slightly better neighbourhoods and escape to their filthy dens. But people who know policemen in Paris? So long as the locals know that, the rich people are untouchable. Besides, all the locals have fled upon the message that the police have entered the neighbourhood. We only see the blind beggar when the Casbah residents are alone, and if we didn't, they probably wouldn't see him, either. He's not exciting or entertaining. And, of course, there is similar voyeurism in just the making of films like this.
The most striking thing about this movie is its wistful nature. Pepe and Gaby play at being together in Paris, a future they will never and, really, can never share. He pretends that you can see Montmartre from the seaside of Algiers. They talk to one another as though there is nothing else. She is in a relationship with one of the other Parisians; I'm not sure which one or its nature. Or possibly they have just seen her as the road to him, which is certainly true. The net is closing around him. Pierrot, doomed Pierrot, is seen as the first sign of Pepe's ill luck, but the pair never speak of him. What is there to say? She knows it was her jewels which first attracted him to her, and he knows it is his air of danger which first attracted her to him. What of it? They have this moment, if no other. They have each other in a way they will never be able to express to anyone else, and various others try to get them to. In the heart of Algiers, they have Paris.