Back in 1938, Charles Boyer famously invited viewers to “Come with me to the Casbah.” His performance may be the most familiar version of the debonair French lover for US audiences, and some may recall the Warner Brothers cartoon parody, the amorous skunk, Pepe le Pew.
Even fewer may remember that Boyer first delivers the line in Algiers, an American remake of Pépé Le Moko. Directed by Julien Duvivier in 1937, this landmark French film stars Jean Gabin in a role that would become his signature — the beleaguered, working-class anti-hero. Pépé Le Moko is a precedent for a certain kind of sympathetic lawbreaker, committed to a tragically impossible love for a woman outside his class. It is hard, as Michael Atkinson observes in the notes for the Criterion Collection’s new DVD, to think of the “movie-star heritage of weathered cool, vulnerable nihilism, bruised masculinity-as-cultural-syndrome” without conjuring up this French robber evading capture in the protective precinct of Algiers’ Casbah. That we may now be too cynical to recognize this blueprint for romantic infatuation is our loss.
Duvivier’s film was adapted from the book of the same name by Detective Ashelbé, the nom de plume of Henri La Barthe. A former policeman who once served in North Africa, Ashelbé published the book in 1931, the same year the Exposition Coloniale was held in Paris. This event commemorated the centenary of the French conquest of Algiers. The public fascination with the exhibit led to further documentation of this country, and the surrounding region, in other media. So all encompassing was that interest that, during the 1930s, over 80 French films were set in this part of the globe. The “comfortable exoticism,” as Michael Atkinson dubs it, that overtook the French public was more or less the appealing public face of imperialistic expansion.
Duvivier shows little overt political interest in either the native inhabitants of his setting or the collision between disparate nationalities. Algiers and the Casbah for him is a formidable visual and narrative context for a romantic narrative more or less. The director had a lifelong fascination with the plight of isolated individuals, particularly when their temperaments clashed with the circumstances that entrap them.
He began his career in 1919 and successfully adapted to sound features. He was, for the course of his long career, a hard-working professional with few pretenses, whom the young adherents of the New Wave in the ’50s and ’60s in France dismissed as a retrograde practitioner of “le cinema du papa,” or old men’s movies. Pépé Le Moko nonetheless shows his considerable skills as a creator of marketable star vehicles. He clearly understood what made the camera take to Gabin in particular and how to underline the actor’s strengths.
Pépé is an expatriate bank robber who has fled to the streets and back alleys of the Casbah in order to escape the clutches of the local police. Pépé rules over his roost as a kind of extra-legal head of state, knowing that if he leaves his territory, he can be arrested and convicted for his crimes. Despite his lengthy record, Pépé does not lack for principles. He remains true to his friends and accomplices; respectful of his female lovers; and reluctant to resort to violence unless forced to do so. He feels affection for his native girlfriend, Inès (Line Noro) and his youthful sidekick, Pierrot (Gilbert-Gil), and sorely misses Paris.
Pépé also maintains an avuncular relationship with the police, particularly the fez-wearing Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gricoux), who respects and even admires his quarry, yet bides his time and eagerly awaits Pepe’s arrest. Their exchanges have a kind of playful cat-and-mouse quality, for each knows exactly what the other is up to, but refuses to make a false move until unforeseen circumstances force him to.
This shift in circumstances begins when Pépé meets Gaby (Mireille Balin), a Parisian woman of the world who has come to Algiers with her middle-aged boyfriend, a champagne salesman. Gaby clearly is a kept woman, yet she finds the sly thief altogether irresistible. At first, it would seem that Pépé is more interested in stealing her jewelry than falling in love with its owner. In the end, however, Gaby comes to embody all that Pépé misses about the world he left behind.
Little known to most viewers today, Gabin was as popular in his day as Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart. Unlike other European stars, such as Boyer, he did not emigrate to Hollywood for any length of time, and made only two films — one, The Imposter (1944), directed by Duvivier — before returning to his homeland and fighting with the Free French during WWII.
Watching him now, one recognizes his economy of performance. Gabin compels our attention as much through stillness as through visible exertion. For all his unlawful activities, Pépé is a character with style and a certain nobility of gesture, as when he strokes the hair of the dead Pierrot or affectionately interacts with the locals. Much of the time, he listens rather than dominating a conversation, which makes his occasional outbursts all the more compelling.
In his subtlety, Gabin reminds me of Toshiro Mifune, particularly in his samurai roles in the films of Akira Kurasawa. Gabin’s force is more verbal than physical in Pépé Le Moko, and entirely persuasive and engrossing. He reveals his roots in the music hall, when the plot stops for a moment in order that Pépé can enthusiastically celebrate his relationship with Gaby in song.
The Criterion Collection edition of Pépé Le Moko exhibits the company’s customary attention to detail. The print has been markedly cleaned up; the subtitles newly translated; and the DVD filled with attractive special features. They include a 1962 television interview with Duvivier; portions of a 1978 documentary on Gabin; excerpts from Ginette Vincendeau’s smart and readable BFI Classic study of the film; and, side by side, a comparison of Duvivier’s film with the 1938 Hollywood remake.
These sequences suggest that the makers of Algiers recognized that Duvivier had crafted a work that they could hardly improve upon. It appears that they paid him a left-handed compliment by either interpolating portions of Duvivier’s original material or so visibly copying his style of presentation that one can hardly tell the two works apart. The opportunity to view the original material under optimum circumstances provides a reminder of how influential this film has been.