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, elevating both to new emotional and poetic levels.

Duvivier 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 to the beautifully crafted character of Pépé. This is quite possibly the quintessential French film from this era, comprehensively representing French cinema of the 1930s in the most accessible and substantial of ways.

The unique setting of the film is laid out in an early speech by one of Pépé’s investigators. The Casbah of Algiers at the time held 40,000 people in an area more suited for 10,000. Every type of wanderer, refugee, or fugitive from points unknown 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 somebody would retreat. Pépé knows that he’s safe in the Casbah but the locale’s physically confining and disorienting traits has it resembling a prison of a different type.

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. His priority has become maintaining his role as “the guy” in town, thereby simultaneously keeping a low and very pronounced profile.

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 reminiscing about Paris together. Gaby is a link to Pépé’s childhood, to France, to actual life. She is also a path to fresh oxygen in the face of the stagnation of his new hometown. He realizes soon that in chasing her he will either arrive at the top of the mountain or bloodied and lifeless at its foot.

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 Pépé 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 grabs and shakes almost to the point of danger.

As much flak as Hollywood has gotten 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 popcorn brand of gangster iconography. In its harshest sequence, surprisingly the only murder scene, the double-crosser Regis’ number was up and he accidentally activates a goofy tune on the player piano before being gunned down offscreen. The light, goofy soundtrack and freeze-frame style of edited violence 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 Pépé 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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I Met Him in Paris (1937)

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  • directed by Wesley Ruggles
  • starring Claudette Colbert, Melvyn Douglas, Robert Young, Lee Bowman, Mona Barrie
  • Kay Denham is off for a fling in Paris, where she meets two new suitors, Gene and George.

“You know sometimes I wish I was crazy, too.”

There’s a decent movie trapped somewhere inside of I Met Him in Paris. Along the way, it tries its hand at several different styles of comedy—slapstick, screwball, romantic—but ends up earning few if any of the laughs due to a deeply flawed script.

Exhibit A: Claudette Colbert’s Kay Denham leads a conservative and unsophisticated lifestyle in America. She is not a modern woman. One of the men she meets when arriving in Paris, George Potter (Melvyn Douglas), is a placid, perpetually passed-over novelist who keeps an air of superiority to him even when in the throes of crushing defeat. We know these character traits not through backstory or actions that inform. Instead each of the adjectives above is directly spoken to the characters by each other or by the characters about themselves. On the nose dialogue is in charge of uncovering depth of character. It is a prime example of how a script can torpedo the delight in watching agreeable stars in beautiful scenery take part in unique-to-film activities, such as bobsledding, all while trying to arrive at the love of one’s life. The pieces are there. I was primed to love a romantic comedy with Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas, two favorites. But to my horror it wasn’t even a script that underserved its players, it was one that tried its best to actively suck the life force right out of them

We meet Kay aboard a Europe-bound ocean liner as she attempts to shake suitor number one, the puppy-like Berk. She is literally and figuratively struggling to push away her old boring life and satisfy a craving for adventure. God bless Berk. I really enjoyed Lee Bowman’s pathetic portrayal most of all and thankfully he resurfaces.

Shortly after arriving in Paris she meets numbers two and three, George Potter and Gene Anders. The two men are…friends, I think? They say they are but were acting more like two people who stay near each other and comment on what the other person is doing wrong in life. Anyway, life is a competition for them and it’s all a little unclear. After a few intentional misdirections, Anders gets out to a quick lead in the Kay-courting game, which leads to probably the biggest flaw of the movie, turning George Potter into an ineffectual curmudgeon.

They all head to Switzerland by train and around this point there might as well have been a flashing, neon arrow over Potter’s head reading “this is the hero, root for him.” But at that same point he was completely neutered beyond any possible romantic possibilities; just a grouch that realizes he’s lost the game and can do nothing but be a wet blanket at all times. Just look at this abomination of a come-on he delivers to Kay at the end of his rope: “I love you. Don’t let it bother you, because I’ve loved other women and nothing’s ever happened. And don’t feel sorry for me because I also love beautiful pictures and good books, and they don’t love me.” Get out your hand fans, ladies, this is your leading man. Further draining the romance on the screen is Gene Anders, a married playboy who, if you can parse through the thick decorum of 1930’s Hollywood, at the end of the day only wanted a one night stand with Kay. For most of the movie, though, he is presented, and presents himself against his true desires, as a viable candidate for marriage.

After all the death-defying attempts at skiing, bobsledding, and ice skating, the constant one-upmanship of Gene and George, and ultimately the arrival of Gene’s wife, Kay has seen enough and retreats back to the simple life. All three extremely unappealing men, including a dumbstruck Berk fresh from travel, flock to her side to plead their extremely unappealing cases. George has the best case and so that’s your big Hollywood finish.

My complaints have been filed accordingly, but there were a few enjoyable things happening. A romantic comedy, however imperfect, decorated by risky winter sports was a novelty that worked for me. And shooting as much as possible in actual open-air mountain locations went a long way. But spending a bit more time enhancing the characters and propping up the love story than figuring out the logistics of slapstick stunts in the snow would have served I Met Him in Paris immeasurably.