Pépé le Moko (1937)

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  • directed by Julien Duvivier
  • starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin, Lucas Gridoux, Line Noro, Gabriel Gabrio, Fernand Charpin, Gilbert Gil, Saturnin Fabre
  • Pépé le Moko, a criminal on the run from the police in metropolitan France, spends his time living outside their reach in the Casbah quarter of Algiers.

“When I feel down I change eras. I think of my youth. I look at my old photo and imagine it’s a mirror.”

It is astounding how much cinematic ground Pépé le Moko covers over the course of a neat and simple story of a fugitive evading arrest. Released in the middle of France’s poetic realism movement, Julien Duvivier’s film is a prime example of that aesthetic and narrative structure but goes much further from there, solidifying the momentum behind the development of the noir movement, celebrating many principles of the American gangster genre, and elevating both to new emotional and poetic levels.

Meanwhile he tapped into visuals that feature everything there is to love about the past, present, and, with a recognizably New Wave camera at times, decades into the future of French film. There was also Jean Gabin, one of the most important faces of any country to ever be featured on a screen. Gabin’s work in the early to mid 1930s, with Renoir, Duvivier a few times, and others, was all leading uphill to the beautifully crafted character of Pépé. Maybe it is the quintessential French film. At the very least, Pépé le Moko comprehensively represents this particular period of French cinema history in the most accessible and substantial of ways.

The unique setting of the film is laid out in an early speech by one of the investigators. The Casbah of Algiers at the time holds 40,000 people in an area more suited for 10,000. Every type of person from all over the world lives here however temporarily. There is a chain of interconnected terraces above and narrow and shadowy streets below. The town is presented by Duvivier as a maze placed atop a maze placed atop a maze. Exactly the type of labyrinthian locale to which a savvy fugitive would retreat. Pépé knows that he’s safe in the Casbah but for those same reasons of confinement and confusion it has itself become a prison.

It’s no type of freedom to not be able to roam the streets or show his face outside the boundaries of the quarter. Carrying out a life beholden to old codes, current associates, and the actions of his past has worn on the man no matter how dominant his public image continues to be. The priority of his days has become maintaining his role as “the guy” in town while avoiding one type of jail in favor of another.

And then “the girl” happens, exhausting his already extreme feelings of disenchantment. To women, at one point Pepe says, “I give my body but keep my head,” but the character of Gaby is no ordinary love interest. She smells like the Paris Metro, he remarks. The two spend an early conversation giddily reciting Parisian locales to each other. Gaby is a link to Pépé’s childhood, to France, to life. She is also a path to freedom because, trapped in a cycle of stagnation, he realizes soon that in chasing her he will either arrive at the top of the mountain or bloodied and lifeless at its foot. Those two results have become all too similar for such a lost man.

In a crowded sea of people, residents and travelers among them, nobody’s presence is felt more than Pépé le Moko’s. He lords over the Casbah not so much with an iron fist but with a quiet melancholy spirit that borders on approachable. He has the ability to smile and small talk with a person just as he’s about to slap them in the face. His reserved side, born of depression and nostalgia, seems also to be designed as an energy conservation technique to fuel the times when impulsive outbursts are required. Even the one sequence of happiness for Pepe comes in the form of an external explosion, with him singing from the rooftop and dancing with Ines, played by the very memorable and accomplished Line Noro, who he shakes almost to the point of danger.

As much flak as Hollywood has gotten for all time as a commerce-driven machine, no country’s top directors in the early years, not Ozu, Eisenstein, Renoir, or Duvivier, were immune to its charms. And as identifiably French as Pépé le Moko is, it did the opposite of turn its nose up on the macho American brand of gangster iconography. In its harshest sequence, surprisingly the only murder scene, the double-crosser Regis’ time had run out and he accidentally activates a goofy tune on the player piano before being gunned down. The offsetting soundtrack and freeze-frame style of editing called to mind some of the best execution scenes of Martin Scorcese.

Instead of gorgeous metropolitan cityscapes or any sort of notable scenery, Duvivier, beholden to his visually restrictive sets, was fixated on finding the heart of the scene even sometimes in purely symbolic terms. There is a great sequence of flashing portraits that serves to highlight the diverse Casbah population. When Pepe finally leaves the quarter to catch up with Gaby aboard the ship we follow just his feet treading pavement before an unrealistic backdrop of the sea appears behind him as if it was the sky. The couple’s first meeting plays out as a series of close-ups on softly lit body parts and her valuable accessories. One of many single shots captured that blend crime, romance, and Pépé’s conflicted mind, and furthermore boil the many intricacies of these characters down to a series of fleeting moments.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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