Pépé le Moko fits well within several types of filmic explorations that I am currently on. A post-WWI French film about a criminal hiding out in the Casbah in Algiers, Pépé le Moko is played by the suave and handsome Jean Gabin, who I’d recently watchin in Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). The film is a sort of proto-noir, a seminal film, whose influence echoed throughout much of true film noir and many later films of and around the French New Wave. The film was re-made in the U.S. twice, first as Algiers (1939) and again as Casbah (1948), and it offers the classic line (though in French and not French-accented English), “Come with me to the Casbah”.
Gabin is excellent as the ultra-lady killer criminal, who has slept with almost every gal in the Casbah and has them all swooning heartily when he sings from the rooftops. But Pépé, who has been hiding out in the Casbah for 2 years, is trapped by the labyrinthine, nearly M.C. Escher-esque world of the Casbah. The moment he leaves the maze and its protection, he’ll be arrested and sent to prison. He longs for Paris, fantasizing about it with the woman for whom he falls. And the police, while incapable of capturing him on his own turf, are wily and waiting for him to make a mistake.
The use of Algiers itself is extremely effective, a multicultural mishmash, a strange and exotic world. For Pépé, however, all of its trappings have become traps, even the beautiful Inès, his Casbah woman. He yearns for his home, and ultimately falls in love with Gaby, a girl from a nearby neighborhood to his. There is a significant sexism that I have to estimate is not a-typical for the time and the culture. Pépé can be brutal, brutally blunt, brutally physical. But this passion and physicality is meant to be part of his overall charms. He is a man, a true anti-hero, a thief but not a killer (he shoots the cops in the legs on purpose), capable of violence but also the romantic hero, a true French Man.
The film has great elegance in its production, simple but effective camerawork, and a narrative that is quick-footed and spry. It’s interesting to see the French crime film, with its echoing influence of American crime films, yet its completely French difference, or is it differance? Vive la différence! Much like Gabin, the film is suave, romantic, and classic.