Jean Gabin was already one of France’s top leading men when he made this film. But the role of Pépé solidified his standing in the annals of his country’s cinematic history.
Pépé le Moko is described as a foray into poetic realism and as the precursor to what became known as film noir. The movie works in large part because of Gabin, who portrays the gangster Pépé as a multidimensional character whose flaws are also his charms.
Humphrey Bogart gave off the same vibe as Rick in Casablanca (1942), a movie that in several ways echoed the exotic, inexplicable and fascinating world of French North Africa portrayed here.
Later French film stars like Yves Montand and Jean-Paul Belmondo dipped into the Gabin playbook in their portrayals of street-tough but sympathetic rogues whose love of life was matched only by their love of women.
The film’s impact on cinema in both Europe and the United States should not be underestimated. It is considered one of the finest films from the early days of French cinema and a classic example of the gangster movie, no matter the country.
More than 70 years after Pépé le Moko’s release, critics still can barely contain themselves when writing about it.
Michael Atkinson’s breathless analysis, in an essay for the Criterion Collection of film reviews, is typical: “Seasoning post-WWI fatalism with what would become film noir’s sense of criminal doom, the movie stands as the pivotal cave-painting template upon which an entire cultural identity has been formed. With its casually comfortable exoticism, abstruse locale . . . and it’s oddly, beautifully sympathetic anti-hero . . . Pépé established a narrative paradigm that persists today, on and off the screen.
“Without its iconic precedent there would have been no Humphrey Bogart, no John Garfield, no Robert Mitchum, no Steve McQueen, no Chinatown . . . no movie-star heritage of weathered, cool, vulnerable nihilism, bruised masculinity-as-culture syndrome.”
While on the surface a story about a gangster hiding out in the Casbah of Algiers, Pépé le Moko is actually a story about a man’s willingness to risk everything in order to find himself.
Pépé (le Moko is slang for someone from Marseilles) is at home in the Casbah, a labyrinth of streets and alleyways populated by gangsters, con men, hustlers and molls.
It’s Arabian Nights meets Guys and Dolls. On the run for crimes committed in France, Pépé has an almost Robin Hood-like existence there, planning heists and scams with a band of loyal followers while surrounded by a populace that won’t give him up to police.
His chance meeting with Gaby (Mireille Balin), the beautiful mistress of a Parisian businessman, sets the course for Pépé’s ultimate, self-inflicted demise. Gaby is literally slumming it with some tourist friends in the Casbah when she meets the notorious—and by definition romantic—Pépé.
Their mutual infatuation blossoms into a love affair after both realize that they come from the same place, literally and figuratively. Memories of Paris, where they both grew up, make Pépé realize that while he’s not in prison, he is a prisoner.
Gaby’s jewels, fine clothes and studied manners belie an ambition and a drive that Pépé knows all too well. While Pépé’s associates see Gaby as a mark—“She’s a walking ice palace, the sparkles she’s got on her,” says one—Pépé is interested in wooing, not robbing her.
“What did you do before?” he asks during one intimate moment.
“Before what?” she asks.
“Before the diamonds,” he says.
“I dreamt of them,” she replies.
Bogart and Bergman couldn’t have uttered the lines any better.
Getting what you want at whatever the cost serves as a theme for the film and many of its characters, including the entertainingly inscrutable Algerian Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) who is set on forcing Pépé out of the Casbah so that he can be arrested.
Slimane, unlike the French police, understands both his prey and the culture of the Casbah. He is patient, treacherous and a master of the double-cross, turning the game of cops-and-robbers into a Romeo and Juliet tragedy that leads to Pépé in handcuffs and Gaby on a ship heading back to Paris.
Pépé has one last move to make, however. He may not get what he wants, but then neither does the good inspector.
HIT: The recreation of the Casbah on a studio set in France embodied the claustrophobia, the intrigue and the uncertainty that were key elements in the movie. The Casbah is as much a character as any of the actors.
MISS: The shootout with the police who have come to The Casbah to arrest Pépé doesn’t ring true. This may be a result of applying 21st-century movie sensibilities to 1930s cinema, but the action seemed more like a bunch of kids playing cops-and-robbers.
“Gotcha.” “No ya’ didn’t.” “Yes I did.”
Pépé doesn’t help when, in the middle of the gunplay—and before he takes a grazing shot in the forearm—he tells his gang to just “aim for the legs” in order to avoid killing anyone.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Perhaps there have been pictures as exciting on the ‘thriller’ level as this before . . . but I cannot remember one which has succeeded so admirably in raising the thriller to a poetic level.”—Graham Greene, the [London] Spectator
GOOF: When Pépé gets drunk while mourning the death of his good friend Pierrot, he sprawls in a chair, his sports jacket falling open to show the monogram on the pocket of his black shirt. The initials “JG” are clearly visible. This, obviously, was Gabin’s shirt, not something that came from wardrobe.
REALITY CHECK: The movie is based on a novel of the same name written by Henri La Barthe. The author, perhaps trying to hint at verisimilitude, wrote the book under the name “Detective Ashelbe.” If you sound out “Ashelbe,” it is the French pronunciation for La Barthe’s initials—HLB.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: For any serious film buff, especially anyone fascinated with film noir, this is a movie worth studying.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The American remake, Algiers, starring Charles Boyer in the title role, was spoofed in a Warner Brothers cartoon and launched a classic character that you may remember—Pepe le Pew. The romantic skunk is often remembered for his famed quote, “Come wiz me to ze Casbah.”
CASTING CALL: It wasn’t enough for American film producers to remake this movie. They had to do it twice. The second time was a less-than-memorable musical called Casbah starring Tony Martin, Yvonne DeCarlo and Peter Lorre. One remake was enough.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Understated, if not underplayed.
BEST LINE: “He’s God up there, you don’t arrest God,” says Inspector Slimane, explaining to the French police why it’s impossible to capture Pépé in the Casbah.
Or this exchange between Pépé and L’Arbi (Marcel Dalio) who is adamantly denying that he is an informant:
“I swear on my father’s head,” says L’Arbi.
“No risk,” Pépé replies. “He was guillotined.”
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Algiers, the 1938 remake starring Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, or Bob le Flambeur (1956), a story about a gangster who, like Pépé, chooses to act despite the high risk of failure.
BODY COUNT: Three.
Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.
[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”