This French classic is magic. Every shot and frame of the 1937 film Pépé le Moko shows that French director Julien Duvivier knew how to make a good movie.
In this instance Duvivier achieved more than that. He struck on the formula for creating the magical look and atmosphere of that surreal black-and-white land of which a middle-aged Hollywood B-picture actor soon would become king.
The formula goes something like this: a charismatic, streetwise middle-aged man, a lovely young woman, and a supporting cast of louche if not criminal eccentrics mix in an improbable potboiler detective plot set in an exotic place.
The sets are sumptuous and alluring; in this instance, orientalist art deco with palms and ‘natives’ in fezzes and djellabas. Expressionistic lighting and camera angles heighten the drama. A western orchestra sways to an eastern flute. The camera swans from shot to shot, episode to episode, from one beautiful image to the next as though in a dream. Things happen ‘and then,’ following the patterns of dreams rather than the more prosaic rationales of quotidian life. The protagonist’s dreamlike ‘anxiety’ is that he is trapped in this place.
Sounds a bit like Casablanca (1942), doesn’t it?
Duvivier reportedly took his cue from Howard Hawk’s Scarface (1932), refashioned here in the so-called French ‘poetic realism’ style with the beautiful Jean Gabin rather than the demonic Paul Muni. United Artists in turn dutifully remade Pépé le Moko in Hollywood as Algiers (1938) with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. Warner Brothers took a flier on Humphrey Bogart in the war propaganda/romance set in American expatriate Rick Blaine’s eponymous saloon in Casablanca.
A goofy aspect of Duvivier’s makeover is that George Raft’s signature coin-flipping in Scarface became le Moko henchman Jimmy (Gaston Modot) playing with a bilbo catcher—a child’s game that involves catching a ball on a stick. Le Moko’s other henchman, Max (Roger Legris), wears a permanently dopey grin that suggests he has had no trouble finding kif.
The ‘romance’ of the genre, such as it is, slips through a door left ajar by an improbable plot: hard-bitten characters who purport to be motivated by self-interest or greed turn out to have airier, loftier, even irrational turns of mind that make the ending all but impossible to guess.
Will le Moko risk capture and a long prison term for love by leaving the Kasbah? Who will lay hands on the priceless ‘black bird’ (The Maltese Falcon, 1941), the ‘letters of transit’ authorizing exit to neutral Portugal from Vichy-ruled Morocco (Casablanca), or turn up the long-lost son-in-law (The Big Sleep, 1946)? Sometimes even the director and screenwriter did not know until the end; often they shot alternative endings.
Woody Allen beautifully recreates a fan’s longing to inhabit this magical kingdom, the protagonist’s wish to escape it, and a filmmaker’s desire to capture it, in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).
Standing on its own, Pépé le Moko may be a perfect movie because it tells its story as artfully and efficiently as a dream.
Jean Gabin plays the notorious French criminal of the title who eludes police by taking refuge in the storied Kasbah of Algiers, the native quarter of one of France’s then colonial cities, where he lives like a pasha with his outlaw gang.
The sobriquet ‘le Moko’ refers to people from the French Mediterranean seaport Toulon, where speakers of Occitan dialects such as Provençal which preceded French used expressions such as es como co rather than the French c'est comme ça (that’s the way it is), or em’ aco? rather than et avec ça? (and with that?). This prompted the French from outside the region to call the locals ‘moco’s.’
But this Pépé evidently became ‘le Moko’ when he got away with ‘two million’ in a Toulon heist in which he used machine guns. Moreover, one of le Moko’s key dramatic vulnerabilities in this story is his homesickness for Paris, the city he claims as his home.
He traffics in stolen jewelry and has no qualms using a handgun, though his ‘thieves’ honor’ or ‘sporting nature’ has him shoot pursuing policemen in the legs only, to warm them off by laming but not killing them. This probably is not a good plan against a modern SWAT team, and may have been far-fetched for le Moko’s time.
Le Moko is middle-aged, but dashing; he has flair and panache. Duvivier’s camera makes Gabin glow.
A chance encounter brings him in contact with Gisèle ‘Gaby’ Gould (Mireille Balin), the beautiful young mistress of the wealthy and much older Maxime Kleep, ‘of Kleep Champagnes’ (Charles Granval). Gaby, a younger associate of Kleep’s and that associate’s mistress are French tourists slumming in the native quarter.
Le Moko and Gaby fall in love—he more with her. Le Moko sparks her romantic imagination and she feeds his homesickness for Paris and his desire to leave the Kasbah.
The wily native Inspecteur Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) plays on le Moko’s love and homesickness to try to draw him out of the quarter to arrest him. If le Moko leaves the Kasbah, can he elude the police dragnet? Will Gaby leave her sugar daddy to share le Moko’s uncertain but beguilingly romantic future?
Balin, a popular actress in the 1930s who starred opposite Gabin in this film as well as Gueule d'amour [Lady Killer] (1937), apparently came close to her own poetic realist end.
She continued to work in German-occupied Paris, where she fell in love with Birl Desbok, a German Army officer. She and Desbok fled the city shortly before the Allies crossed the Seine in August 1944, but free French forces caught them in the south the next month. Desbok likely was executed. Balin, banned as a collaborator from working in the film industry for a year after the war, made only one more film.