Monday, February 18, 2013

Pépé le Moko (1937)



Director: Julien Duvivier

In many cases a gangster film is about crime, punishment, suffering, or a mix and match of those ideas. Here in Pépé le Moko we watch the tale of one gangster able to stave off arrest by taking refuge in a dangerous part of town that even the police do not dare to enter. It is a slightly stylized picture featuring French star Jean Gabin in a movie that predates the genre of film noir, inspiring remakes across the ocean in Hollywood.

Pépé le Moko is a French drama of a gangster taking refuge in a densely populated and crooked section of a city where authorities do not dare to enter and the attempts to manipulate him to come out so he may be arrested. The notorious gangster Pépé (Jean Gabin) is hunted by the French police, but finds safety living in the Casbah, an overpopulated, narrow-pathed, thickly corrupt, heavily diverse section of the city of Algiers, where no police will enter in fear for their lives. In this small community Pépé lives nearly as royalty, but grows weary of being so confined. One undercover police officer, Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux), becomes an acquaintance with Pépé, letting him know that the moment he leaves the Casbah Slimane will arrest him. It is a continual emotional fight for Pépé as he is tempted many times to leave his refuge of the Casbah, but it is a beautiful woman from Paris named Gaby (Mireille Balin) that wins his heart and with her leaving Pépé to return to Paris he finally leaves the narrow paths of the Casbah to see her just depart on a ship, allowing authorities to arrest him, but eventually taking his own life out of a broken heart.

The film is a well done friendly, psychological cat-and-mouse game between the title character and the Slimane as he tries many ways to get him to emerge from small dangerous section that is his haven. What grows is a love story of a man that you would believe could have any woman, but wants only one, ultimately leaving him exposed, leading him to his downfall. With cinematic qualities that would lead to the genre of film noir Pépé le Moko becomes a gripping story of a man wanted for his criminal ways, but done in by his own passions.

Director Julien Duvivier’s style mixes real life with the fictional magic of film. Opening the film is a mix of candid real-life shots of the land that inspires the movie’s Casbah, depicting people and neighborhoods that are densely populated and diverse in culture, with very narrow streets and courtyards. This is his version of an environment that would keep a criminal safe from authorities. With buildings that literally cover the sun in the sky, producing many shadows allows Duvivier to film the picture in a ever darkened world. Not to say dark as in what one day will be seen in the dimly lit film noir, but far from bright, knowing the Casbah lives in its own shadows. Also used are selective “dutch” angles, where the camera is slightly askew at times to give the feeling that things are off in many cases.

The title character would be owned by French star Jean Gabin. He takes the role of the gangster and makes him charming, dangerous, and sympathetic depending on the situations he is in. He threatens the lives of those after him, commanding the screen with his presence, but it all leads to the final moments when love brings him down, ultimately accepting total loss, taking his own life to close the picture.

Both Duvivier and Gabin would make moves to attempt to work in Hollywood. Duvivier would sign a contract with MGM in 1938, but making little of a name for himself in America. Gabin would cross the ocean as well as a next actor to make the transaction from Europe to America, but find little in career movement, while finding himself more of tabloid material, sharing relationships with some of the more famous female imports in Hollywood.

The success Pépé le Moko of would make the story rich for remakes, which includes to American versions. The first would be the 1938 picture Algiers, named after the city which the film takes place. Producer Walter Wanger would distribute the film through United Artist and attempt tp assure its success over the original by ordering the destruction of all the copies of Pépé le Moko in the US. Fortunately not all copies were eradicated leaving the original very much enact. A second version would be produced by Universal in 1948, a post war musical version of the story which too did not stand up to the film that inspired it.

Pépé le Moko is not an edge of your seat gangster picture, but makes for a gripping one as you watch to see what comes of this charming man of crime. Gabin is a talented actor that grabs your attention and seriously makes himself a star to watch in French cinema, making Pépé le Moko a good example of fine French filmmaking in the later 1930s.

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