Best Pictures of 1937 (#6) – Pépé le Moko

(France)

Director, Julien Duvivier; Screenplay, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson; Producers, Raymond Hakim and Robert Hakim; Original Music, Vincent Scotto and Mohamed Ygerbuchen; Editor, Marguerite Beaugé; Production Design, Jacques Krauss

Cast: Jean Gabin (Pépé le Moko), Mireille Balin (Gaby Gould), Gabriel Gabrio (Carlos), Saturnin Fabre (Le Grand Pere), Fernand Carpin (Regis), Lucas Gridoux (Inspector Slimane)

This is a great movie that turns the gangster genre on its head as we fall for the charm of its criminal lead while we shoo away our ethical concerns about his crimes.  Director Julien Duvivier understands that a criminal like Pépé must be charming and likable or no one would be willing to help him.  It is the secret to his success and a striking counterpoint to the more vicious criminals of U.S. (mostly Warner Bros. films) like Little Caesar and Public Enemy.  We don’t much like Rico or Tom Powers; we recognize that they are volatile thugs who can snap at any moment.  Pépé le Moko is suave and reserved, only lashing out in violence when he needs to, more of an intellectual move rather than emotional explosion.  This doesn’t excuse his crimes, but it complicates our relationship to them as we almost become complicit in them.

Jean Gabin plays Pépé le Moko, the famed criminal.  At the open of the film he has escaped Paris after a brazen crime for the French colony of Algeria.  He settled in the Casbah, the famed district of Algiers, which is essentially a labyrinth of streets, terraces, and winding staircases that may or may not lead anywhere.  In the Casbah he is protected by its citizens – all either taken in by his charm, money and/or distaste for the police.  They warn him of approaching police and provide him with intricate escape routes through secret passages, out back doors, and over the interconnecting rooftop terraces.

Pépé can stay free so long as he remains in the safe confines of the Casbah.  And here we come to the irony of his situation.  His freedom is illusionary.  Though he seems to have everything he could want – respect, money, a gang, a woman – he is effectively imprisoned.  As the film progresses his confinement becomes more repressive after he meets Gaby (Mireille Balin), a beautiful, rich tourist seeking adventure and thrills in the infamous Casbah.  During her slumming adventure she meets Pépé and the two begin a fateful love affair.  For her, Pépé is everything her life isn’t: unpredictable, exciting, dangerous, and sexy.  For him, Gaby represents everything he misses about life in Paris: freedom, glamour, romance, and whimsy.

Though Pépé works tirelessly to elude capture, he also sows the seeds of his own downfall.  He allows a police inspector, Slimane, free access to the Casbah.  Slimane knows he doesn’t have a hope of arresting Pépé in the Casbah so he watches and waits.  Pépé mistakes Slimane’s patience with resignation and allows the man closer to his inner-circle than any criminal should.  Slimane, brilliantly played Lucas Gridoux, uses their casual and convivial relationship to gather intelligence, learning Pépé’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities so he can set the perfect trap for the thief.  We know Pépé’s smart enough to at least subconsciously know that no matter how friendly he is, it is dangerous to have a police officer so close.  Perhaps Slimane represents the only possible escape from the increasingly oppressive Casbah for Pépé. He would never give himself up or allow himself to be caught, but having Slimane close at hand gives him an easier way out when he decides he can’t take his conditional freedom any longer without obviously giving up.  In effect, Pépé has set the stage for his own capture down the line because he knows the Casbah will become worse than any prison.

Pépé le Moko is an ambivalent character.  He’s neither good nor bad, but, like all of us, somewhere in between.  Though a Hollywood remake was released the next year, the U.S. version Algiers, bogged down by Hayes Code regulations, couldn’t make a movie for grownups that considered morality in anything other than simplistic, good vs. evil terms.  Charles Boyer’s Pépé in Algiers lacked the likeability of Gabin’s characterization.  And the slight change at the end reconfirmed Hollywood’s (or at least the Hayes Office’s) commitment to retribution and punishment rather than understanding and empathy.  Duvivier’s picture dares us to identify with Pépé before we had other likeable criminals in film and literature, including sociopaths like Tom Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s series of darkly funny books to serial killers like Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector.  Pépé is a pussycat compared to Ripley and Lector.  (We never see him bash in anyone’s head or snack on anyone’s flesh.)  Pépé le Moko is an intelligent and sympathetic portrait of a man trapped by his own decisions in a prison he made for himself.

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2 Comments

Filed under 1937, Yearly Best Pictures

2 responses to “Best Pictures of 1937 (#6) – Pépé le Moko

  1. Yes, without question another film that would rank high on my list for 1937 as well. Both Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman considered Duvivier a cinematic “poet,” yet this prolific and versatile director never achieved the respect in France afforded his famed countrymen like Renoir, Marcel Carne or Rene Clair. This innovative gangster film is one of the best of his kind and one of two unquestioned Duvivier masterworks with UN CARNET DE BAL as the other.

    Another excellent qualifying essay.

    • Thank you Sam! I was sure you would agree with me here. It’s such a beautiful and complex movie, much more so than most of the crime movies of the 1930s. But would you believe I haven’t seen any other of Duvivier’s movies? I’ve been looking for CARNET DE BAL for some time but haven’t been able to get my hands on it. That though is one of the joys of being a movie lover. There is always something to see.

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