Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Algiers (1938)

Director: John Cromwell

A remake of a French film about an infamous jewel thief imprisoned within his own refuge community, this motion picture nearly copies a complete feature that has already played well in international markets. Algiers is a remake of Pépé le Moko starring Jean Gabin, nearly adopting the film as America’s own creation while creating brand new stars and archetypes in the process. If imitation is the greatest form of flattery then this picture should have built a shrine to its French original, if not for the American producer trying to erase the original from the cinema world.

Algiers is a drama of an infamous jewel thief hiding in a densely populated and diverse Algerian town as his only refuge from authorities, and the woman that enters his life reminding him of his home country and the joy of  freedom.  Pépé le Moko (Charles Boyer) for two years has made the Casbah in the Mediterranean town of Algiers his sanctuary with its crowded, assorted population, un-mappable, narrow paths, and array of dangerous individuals and situations making it unsafe for even police to manage. Somewhat a folk hero to the town Pépé lives comfortably, but has an internal yearning to return to his home town of Paris, which is what he is reminded of when he encounters the lovely Parisian Gaby (Hedy Lamarr). Using Pépé’s romance to his advantage, Inspector Slimane (Joseph Calleia), works his manipulation of information on Gaby along with the jealousy of Ines, a close female admirer of Pépé’s, to coax Pépé out of the Casbah where he perishes pinning for the woman he has fallen in love with.

The picture is an enjoyable story that takes audiences to an exotic location, mixing the mystery of northern Africa with the likes of the more dangerous aspects of Europe, all blended into an American film. With a combination of drama, suspense, romance, and tragedy Algiers packs a great deal of wonderful aspects of movies into a film. The only drawback to the picture that American audiences did not know when it was released was that it was practically a copy of a successful feature out of France just a year prior.

Walter Wanger must have saw what a good picture Pépé le Moko was in 1937 and decided to produce his own American remake of the film, renaming it Algiers after the city the story takes place in. To direct the picture was John Cromwell, a veteran actor and director with a knack for drama. Cromwell would not needed too much inspiration for the work other than watching the original as many of the shots and blocking come straight out of the French feature. Other than the action moving slightly more quickly, if one put the two films side by side and turned off the soundtrack it would have been difficult to see the difference between the two. The acting in Algiers however falls more into a simpleton form of acting outside of the main characters, as the secondary character actors seem a bit duller.

French born star Charles Boyer commands the screen very much as Jean Gabin had in the original, but with his own flare. His charisma allows one to believe in this great criminal and sympathize for him as he wishes to one day be free, something he knows he could never attain. Boyer’s performance would help shape the stereotype of the suave Frenchman in American cinema, talking in low breathy notes, many times holding a cigarette in a sophisticated manner. His Pépé le Moko would help inspire the famous Warner Bros. cartoon character Pepe le Pew, who had the style of Boyer and the libido of Maurice Chevalier in his pre-Production Code pictures.

Primary cast in the foreground- Calleia, Lamarr, Guire, and Boyer
Introducing to the world of cinema is Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian born beauty in the role as the romantic point of obsession for Pépé. It is said that he beauty alone landed her both a job in Hollywood and this role as Gaby. In any case she does a fine job playing the pretty lady that falls for Pépé, but not quite as deeply intriguing as the French original. Her success here would only be the beginning of her long career.

The real complicated woman in the feature is played more as a side note in Ines, portrayed by Sigrid Guire. This character is the jealous lady that attempts to keep Pépé and Gaby apart and she wants him to herself. Guire was discovered and believed to be the next Garbo with her exotic looks, but this New York born actress would only find moderate success.

It seemed that this American version of the film played more with the character of Inspector Slimane, portrayed by Joseph Calleia. Commonly known for playing authority figures or crooked characters, Calleia’s Slimane is a friendly, yet scheming figure who you do not trust even though he is a “good guy” attempting to bring a criminal to justice. In the end he is very sympathetic to Pépé as Pépé is shot and killed while trying to see his love as she departs Algeria. The most major change this picture form the original production was the ending where Pépé is killed by the authorities in watching Gaby departing. instead of committing suicide as seen in the Jean Gabin portrayal.

With striking similarities to the original French production, excluding the final death of Pépé which is more dramatic in the French version, Algiers and Pépé le Moko are very similar, not in so much as being a remake, but rather being a copy. To aid the success of the film in American markets producer Walter Wanger would attempt to destroy all known copies of Pépé le Moko so that audiences would not see the striking similarities of the two films and how much it was a carbon copy of the French feature. Luckily Pépé le Moko would survive and live a great example of superior French filmmaking for this story. Algiers would be a success in its own right and further the careers of it two stars. With the film’s style and locals screenwriters and filmmakers would later be inspired to produce a future all-time classic Casablanca, both sharing Northern Africa locations and heartbreak of separation in the end.

Algiers makes for a fine example of how American cinema attempts to copy what is was successful out of other countries. This practice would be used to a higher extent in decades to come, but to see here a clear copy and not a reimagining is quite interesting. To think the producer attempted to erase traces of the French film, seems absurd, but fears that audiences would rather see the original than the remake would have worried a producer in a small studio as seen hear. Luckily audiences are able to watch both and enjoy how both would make their marks on cinema history. (The story of Algiers would still serve to be popular enough for a remake ten years later in 1948 as a musical in Casbah.)

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