Pépé le Moko Reviews
I saw the American remake first, I'm afraid. Generally, I disapprove of this practice. Most of the time, it's because, for one reason or another, I didn't realize I was getting a remake--or else didn't realize it was a remake. In this case, it was of course because the original starts with "A" and the remake starts with "P." It's one of the hazards of this project, I admit, and I could have just elected to hold off on the remake until I got through "P," but I'm not sure I realized that [i]Algiers[/i] was a remake in the first place until I got it from Netflix. They all kind of blended into the great mass of film I've heard of but don't really know much about, I suppose. The more so because this is an old French movie, and my knowledge of French cinema is erratic at best. I know of the early silent classics and the highlights of the French New Wave, but there are no guarantees about anything else.
In this original version, Pépé le Moko is Jean Gabin. He still lives in the winding streets of the Casbah, and he still dreams of Paris instead. However, if he ever sets foot even just into the city beyond the Casbah, the police will capture him, and at best, he will spend the rest of his life in prison. One day, he is involved in a gun battle with the police--I'm not entirely sure why--and trapped with him is a group of slumming Parisians. One is the beautiful Gaby Gould (Mireille Balin), a kept woman who travels because her keeper wants to but dreams only of returning to Paris. She and Pépé le Moko fall in love, of course. This to the despair of Inès (Line Noro), who has been his lover for years and for whom he does not care, if he ever did. Meanwhile, of course, the criminals of the Casbah go about their lives, and some of that includes attempting to gain advantage over Pépé while he is distracted by Gaby. This eventually leads to the death of Pierrot (Gilbert-Gil), because he is someone whose death will matter to Pépé.
As with quite a lot of other movies, I keep coming back to the thought that he is, when you get right down to it, still a criminal. It's the problem that I had with [i]Papillon[/i], as you may recall. We are supposed to sympathize with how much Pépé wishes to return to Paris, but the reason he can't is that he is a criminal who will go to jail if he returns to France. (Based on his nickname, he is apparently not Parisian by birth but instead is from the town of Toulon. However, far be it from me to say no one should identify more with an adopted home than the home of one's birth.) I have considerably more sympathy for I believe it is Tania (Fréhel), a former music hall singer grown old and fat and obscure. Even if she returned to Paris, she would not be able to return to her old life. She listens to the records of herself and looks at old photographs instead of looking into mirrors.
The problem most of the characters in movies like this have is that none of them are particularly interested in anyone but themselves. For some reason, Pépé sees no problem with saying horribly cruel things to Inès without consideration of how she might feel about it. He does not worry that there will be consequences, much less what those consequences might turn out to be. Gaby plans to leave her protector without worrying about whether the life she's going to in the Casbah will be any good for her. She believes that her love and Pépé's will be enough to keep them. I don't even know what Pierrot is thinking. He seems to be hoping for something to do with his mother, who is apparently visiting for some reason. I really wasn't able to keep track of why half the people were doing what they were doing, but I suppose that's almost to be expected. After all, these people would be keeping things quiet, because they wouldn't want their plans revealed until they had actually acted on them. Unfortunately for each other, there's no place for empathy in a system like that.
Released five years before "Casablanca," "Pépé le Moko" obviously influenced its more famous successor. For starters, we get an exotic, North African setting (Algeria, in this case) which might as well be credited as a co-star. There's also an anti-hero, a doomed romance, a notable piano scene, a colorful batch of side characters and, yes, plenty of fezzes. So, three cheers for "Pépé"'s spot in an important cinematic timeline. But this is a foreign movie for people who don't like foreign movies. It may be French, but the filmmaking scans as old Hollywood.
Jean Gabin is Pépé, a master bank robber who's hiding out in the seaside Casbah district. Described onscreen as a "teeming maze," it's a fantastic collection of sets. The homes are chaotically crammed together such that the sky is barely visible, and there doesn't seem to be a pair of perpendicular streets anywhere (or a level surface larger than a bedroom). An opening police briefing serves as a wonderful introduction to the territory, but the plot soon zeroes in on Pépé. He hardly does anything worse than raise his voice during the film, but we're assured that he's a ruthless criminal with a long list of spectacular thefts.
He has a diverse entourage who jockeys for his attention, but most crucial among them are young Pierrot, tough guy Carlos, clumsy informant Regis, embedded cop Slimane (a friendly adversary) and a gypsy girlfriend named Inès. Pépé is a free man, but he's virtually imprisoned anyway. The Casbah is too volatile an area for the police to successfully raid and, much to his frustration, he knows that the only way to avoid arrest is to never leave.
His shaky situation comes to a boil when he meets Gaby, a classy temptress with eyebrows like insect feelers. They have little common ground beyond a fondness for Paris but, naturally, they fall in love in an instant. Because this is a movie. Pépé begins sneaking away from Inès to pursue his true desire, but we realize that following his heart will only lead to a fatal mistake.
Gabin and the claustrophobic snarl of the Casbah are what's most memorable about "Pépé le Moko." The versatile Gabin even croons an unexpected song (seemingly a pattern in '30s French movies). Another musical vignette features an aging gypsy wistfully singing along with a scratchy record she made during her prime -- it's perhaps the most touching scene.
Call it an early film noir, a top example of French Poetic Realism or simply a romantic gangster picture. It's exceptionally well-made but, personally, I found myself longing for the more distinctive quirks of Jean Vigo or René Clair.