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.

Blockade (1938)

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  • directed by William Dieterle
  • starring Madeleine Carroll, Henry Fonda, Leo Carrillo, John Halliday, Vladimir Sokoloff, Robert Warwick, Reginald Denny, Carlos De Valdez
  • A peasant farmer is forced to take up arms to defend his land during the Spanish Civil War. Along the way he falls for a woman whose father is a Russian spy.

“You may escape with your lives but you’ll have nothing to live for.”

“The most important film of 1938,” was the tagline associated with Blockade, a movie technically about the Spanish Civil War that was released in the middle of the conflict. The descriptors “topical,” “groundbreaking,” and “controversial” may have also been found as buzzwords on the film’s marketing materials. There is a wide expanse of territory between what producers and the politically-minded Communist writer John Howard Lawson thought they were making and what ended up on the screen however. I have no doubt that there are one-panel political cartoons released during this time that dealt with the Spanish Civil War in more poignant terms.

What else can you say about a movie that is terrified of saying anything. One that turns its back completely on the subject matter in its blood. Socially and politically, The Spanish Civil War was a complicated issue and yet Blockade had so little to say about it that the two factions fighting it—the Nazi-backed Francisco Franco-led Nationalists and The Republicans or Loyalists—were not once mentioned by name. There were clues as to which side Henry Fonda’s people’s militia and the spy-heavy opposition represented but uniforms were altered and the script so convoluted that the story of good guys versus bad guys could have taken place during any historical conflict. Its main generic goal was shrinking the monumental conflict down to one village, and then one farm, and then one man, to speak of the toll that war has on a country’s civilian population. The movie then went on to give no context to why any of it was actually happening.

Blockade was a Spanish Civil War movie in the same way a much more important film of 1938, The Adventures of Robin Hood, was about King Richard’s role in the Third Crusade. A tame romance and espionage won out at the expense of, you know, actual information. If it wasn’t bad enough that the aim of the production was many levels higher than the execution, consider the fourth wall-breaking, hollow ending speech by Fonda’s Marco who turns directly into the camera to ponder “where is the conscience of the world” to allow such atrocities to take place?

“Atrocities where and by whom?” audience members may have asked themselves after watching a movie based on current reality that seems to intentionally disorient those who watch it. “I hear Hemingway is writing a Spanish Civil War-set novel right now, let’s just wait for that,” one of them added while walking out of the theater.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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  • directed by Paul Leni
  • starring Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Cesare Gravina, Brandon Hurst, Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell
  • Gwynplaine, the son of an aristocrat, is kidnapped for political reasons and then disfigured by a gypsy surgeon, who leaves the boy’s face paralyzed in a contorted smile.

 “God closed my eyes so I could see only the real Gwynplaine.”

Director Paul Leni was a German avant-garde painter and set designer who experienced some success with the stylish anthology film, Waxworks, but never broke through in Germany or during his brief time in the States. There was good material and some breathtaking visual moments for Leni but he very much remained an aesthetic-driven everyman until the end of his life one year after releasing Universal’s adaptation of The Man Who Laughs. Going back to the Victor Hugo well was an attempt by the studio to keep the high-profile Gothic romantic melodrama train rolling after two big successes in the years prior–The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera.

Like the early films of Joe May and Ernst Lubitsch, the look and feel of Leni’s films rarely escape such a mighty theatrical and Expressionist background. The carnival settings were exciting and twisted and the scenes with the royals appropriately opulent. The subject matter was practically begging for the loud brand of Expressionist compositions with props and angles thrashing across the screen, but Leni went in the other direction, perhaps recognizing the otherworldly qualities of the narrative and going for a more subdued and natural visual form. By 1928, pure Expressionism as it was known was coming to an end hand in hand with silent film. The style primarily existed only in the silent years and was then picked apart and appropriated throughout many more mainstream genres going forward.

Written in 1869, The Man Who Laughs is about a man who was used by others for various purposes since birth. Gwynplaine was used as a young boy by King James II as a lesson to his insubordinate father. He was then found and used as a freak show entertainer positioned right next to the three sword swallowing man and the five-legged cow. Later in life he was used again by the royals who discover his esteemed lineage and need him to legitimize the Duchess Josiana through marriage.

Through all of these injustices Gwynplaine has no choice but to smile, only literally, as it was carved into his face at a young age. After his father is killed he wanders and stumbles across a child in similar circumstances, the blind girl Dea, and both get taken in by the charlatan, Ursus. There is always love and care shared between the deeply insecure Gwynplaine and the soft-spoken and vulnerable Dea. Unlike the carnival audience members who point and laugh, Dea is unable to see any disfigurement and instead notices an immensely warm person who has the gift of making people laugh.

Mary Philbin plays Dea like she is made of tissue paper and the forecast calls for rain. To see her in The Man Who Laughs is to want to drop everything and nurture her. A very delicate performance. Both leads elicit much sympathy as the great Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine was similarly raw, but it was a unique watching experience to have to rely on his eyes alone to capture the depth of emotion. Silent film hinges on a performance style that more often than not crosses the line to over-emotive and this was the exact opposite. These two say everything that needs to be said about pain and damage and even more without doing much of anything.

The length of the movie was one problem I had. When a simple story like this gets 110 minutes to unfold, often, as here, there will be buffer scenes or side stories that weaken the impact. In this case the greater share of showing what’s being done to Gwynplaine and Dea as opposed to how they’re coping with or internalizing such injustice kept interrupting my heartfelt devotion to the characters.

The one part of The Man Who Laughs that I was fully expecting but looking forward to was the happy ending for the pair. After escaping Queen Anne’s grand plan, Gwynplaine dodges several guards to reunite with Ursus and Dea aboard a boat and right then was the moment the entire film was building to, the same smile we’ve seen all along but this time for real.

Mayerling (1936)

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  • directed by Anatole Litvak
  • starring Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Jean Dax, Gabrielle Dorziat, Andre Dubosc
  • Rebelling against his overbearing father, Austria’s crown prince, Rudolph, slips away and begins a passionate tryst with young baroness Marie Vetsera.

 “Nanny, do you think a prince can be unhappy?”

The story of Archduke Rudolph and his mistress Marie Vetsera has been a point of historical fascination for a century and a quarter by now. Over the years there have been dozens of theories put forth about what exactly transpired at Mayerling on the night of January 30, 1889. Was it a murder-suicide? A botched abortion? An ambush by Vetsera’s family? Was Maria complicit in or even aware of the plan? Questions remain mostly due to evidence tampering and suppression by the House of Habsburg at the time. All we know is that after a refusal by the Pope to annul Rudolph’s existing marriage and a period of hushed courtship between the two as a result of family objections on both sides, they entered into their chambers at the quiet royal manor for one last night together and were found dead the next morning.

For better or worse it is Claude Anet’s book Idyll’s End as adapted in two Mayerling films, in 1936 and 1968, which paints the largest picture available of the doomed affair between the would-be Emperor of Austria and the young baroness. And so the story that is most often told, not surprisingly, is the one that we the ever salacious-leaning public would like to be told as we munch our popcorn, stifle our tears, and consider the many injustices this world of ours has seen through the centuries. Combining the elegance of European royalty, the façade of a classic forbidden romance, and true crime-levels of evidence and theories as to how it ended for the pair, the story of Rudolph and Marie Vetsera was tailor-made to inspire, depress, and make the world wonder for generations.

Anatole Litvak was in no way interested in telling a straight, star-crossed love story with Mayerling. There was an ominous mood that accumulated throughout and any shred of positive emotion or romance was immediately stifled by a symbolic prop or line of dialogue that pointed toward the grave, such as the skull on Rudolph’s desk, him firing a gun at his reflection in the mirror, his growing paranoia and mental anguish, a puppet show in which a character is punished for feelings of true love, and Maria wishing on her wedding ring that she dies before he does. Litvak created perfectly refined environments and the stuffy atmosphere of European pomp and circumstance. There was also on the surface somewhat of a traditional love story narrative, though cleverly seasoned with dread at every turn. For all the efforts to tamp down the sunshine and rainbows, this was still to its detriment a version of the story that had the strong-burning love between the two as the sole motivating factor to rid themselves of this world. In reality there were a lot of other factors involved.

Another problem that I had with Mayerling can be boiled down quite simply to the story of the two Vetseras. First there is the real life Mary Vetsera, who I read was every bit as melancholy and trapped as the crown prince. She was a mistress after all, one of many in fact, and on a much smaller scale she could bring on just as much public shame to her family as Rudolph. If death was a way for her and Rudolph to continue on together, then I buy the fact that Mary Vetsera, ignorant to the fact that her true love had been searching for a death partner previously, was a knowing accomplice to that plan.

A different character in the film altogether, Anet and Litvak’s Marie, as played by the lovely Danielle Darrieux, was the unassuming young woman that caught the eye of everyone as she kept to herself at various galas and receptions. She was radiant and beautiful with an aura that competed with even the most esteemed members of the crowd. My issue arises when she says of herself in an early scene that she was happy and satisfied with life. As the relationship with Rudolph developed and the cards quickly stacked against them she maintained that emotion and there were never steps made to darken her demeanor suggesting she would go along with a joint suicide attempt.

As complex as her experience and motivations were, Rudolph by comparison is an easy case. Charles Boyer played the character completely drenched with grief throughout, leading to that out of control party scene that played more like a horror movie in that we do not know what deprave acts his depression will make possible. He is a shamed playboy cursed by his father and lashing out at the formal, conservative trappings of being the heir apparent. Death was always going to be his escape hatch. He just had to find the right person with which to share that.

It is important to note the severe implications that night at Mayerling potentially had on the world at large. The line of succession was foggy to say the least upon Rudolph’s death, leading his father to appoint his nephew, Rudolph’s cousin, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This was already a time when tensions in Europe were escalating and Austria-Hungary influence was waning considerably. This all highlights a very clear alternate timeline, in which there is no assassination of the heir to the throne in 1914, no escalation of tensions and July crisis, and just maybe no World War I. About 16 million people died during World War I and it very well could have been because of the two that did themselves in 25 years earlier.

Outside the Law (1920)

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  • directed by Tod Browning
  • starring Priscilla Dean, Lon Chaney, Wheeler Oakman, Ralph Lewis, E. Alyn Warren, Wilton Taylor
  • Molly joins Black Mike’s gang to aid in a jewel robbery, but when she learns that she’s to be framed, she makes off with the loot and hides out in a tiny apartment.

Outside the Law mostly worked for me, due especially to a great job by Priscilla Dean in an unlikely type of role. Overall, though, the small threads introduced to color the simple crime tale failed to come together. I’m mostly referring to the Confucianism accents to the story and the yogi-esque character of Chang Lo, which were welcome additions to the otherwise familiar trappings of the gangster genre, but never quite graduated out of accent territory. One reason for the underdeveloped nature of some of the film’s themes and characters may be that the only print available now is the 1926 re-release that was trimmed down from the 1920 original. The film in any form was lost for a while until discovered in 1975. Unfortunately it was the studio-edited version that ended up surfacing.

The film takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown and began with a meeting between Molly and her father, both criminally active, and Chang who tries to draw them out of the darkness with calming Confucian teachings. It doesn’t work at that point, as Madden ends up in jail for eight months and Molly ends up in league with the guy who framed him, and it kind of never works even though Lo sticks around as a passenger to all the action that follows. Those that he tries to reach end up arriving at some of his conclusions, yes, but for different reasons than he intended altogether. Molly is eventually reformed because of an awakening of her motherly spirit, not because she’s absorbed any of the teacher’s Eastern lightness. The Confucius stuff didn’t come across as a huge flaw of the film though I did wish that it was a little more harmonious with the main storyline. In my head I’ll pretend that the original version did a lot better by Chang Lo, his underling Ah Wing, and Confucius. Here, it was fine for what it was—slight decoration.

I thought, due to Lon Chaney playing two roles on opposing sides of a war, that this was going to be his show completely. But it turned out that it was another multi-faceted performance, Priscilla Dean’s, which left the biggest mark. In any other gangster film, Molly Madden would have most likely been the wife or girlfriend at home unsuccessfully trying to keep her man from walking out the door and taking that one last job. I say that not because of her gender but because of her demeanor and personal style in this film. When cooped up in the hideout apartment her dress, her hair, and her knitting activities create a perfect picture of tidy housewife. It isn’t until we see her clutch the gun hidden at her side or deliver a verbal smackdown on Bill for acting like an amateur that we get to see how serious she could be.

There always seems to be one tradition-bucking catch to Tod Browning’s films and with this one it was no doubt its centering a gang turf war story on the involvement of a woman with a clean appearance and growing yearnings for motherhood and family. It wasn’t often that he stepped outside of the horror genre and I think he deserves a lot of credit for this particular film. The locations were alive and refreshing and the gunfights were choreographed nicely. Story-wise it may not have all gelled, but there were many techniques and visuals that rung very familiar to what would eventually be seen in the noir and gangster genres of the future.