A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, May 6, 2016

Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937)

When Walter Wanger decided to remake Pépé le Moko in 1938 as Algiers (John Cromwell), he tried to buy up all the existing copies of the French film and destroy them. Fortunately, he didn't succeed, but it's easy to see why he made the effort: As fine an actor as Charles Boyer was, he could never capture the combination of thuggishness and charm that Jean Gabin displays in the role of Pépé, a thief living in the labyrinth of the Casbah in Algiers. It's one of the definitive film performances, an inspiration for, among many others, Humphrey Bogart's Rick in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943). The story, based on a novel by Henri La Barthe, who collaborated with Duvivier on the screenplay, is pure romantic hokum, but done with the kind of commitment on the part of everyone involved that raises hokum to the level of art. Gabin makes us believe that Pépé would give up the security of a life where the flics can't touch him, all out of love for the chic Gaby (Mireille Balin), the mistress of a wealthy man vacationing in Algiers. He is also drawn out of his hiding place in the Casbah by a nostalgia for Paris, which Gaby elicits from him in a memorable scene in which they recall the places they once knew. Gabin and Balin are surrounded by a marvelous supporting cast of thieves and spies and informers, including Line Noro as Pépé's Algerian mistress, Inès, and the invaluable Marcel Dalio as L'Arbi.