Jean Gabin plays a famous jewel thief hiding in the Casbah, a criminal neighborhood in Algiers, in this popular French film from 1937.
For a brief time in the 1930s, there was a movement in French cinema called “poetic realism.” These films combined deeply romantic themes with a kind of melancholy fatalism, and in retrospect they seem to foreshadow the darkness that France would experience in the coming war. One of my favorite among this group is a 1937 film called Pépé le Moko, directed by Julien Duvivier.
Pépé, the title character played by Jean Gabin, is a notorious, charismatic jewel thief who, having evaded capture for years, is now holed up in the Casbah – an impenetrable urban maze on the edge of Algiers. As long as he stays there, he and his gang can dodge the law, but a wily police inspector (played by Lucas Gridoux) sees a chance to lure him out, by exploiting his attraction to Gaby, a beautiful Parisian tourist played by Mireille Balin.
Attractive criminals and antiheros had appeared in films before, but never with such an aura of romance and unapologetic charm as Gabin has here. With his world-weary eyes and solitary habits, he gives Pépé a soulfulness and depth unusual for a movie gangster. The film’s crime elements are secondary to the theme of loneliness, of Pépé’s isolation in the Casbah, and his longing for his Paris home, as symbolized by the alluring Gaby.
Duvivier’s stye is impeccable—the pace, lighting, editing, and evocation of underworld atmosphere are all marvelous, and the actors perform wonders as well. The picture has suspense, humor, excitement—and what’s more, its quiet moments are among the best. There is something of exoticism here—the colonialist’s assumption of superiority, as in the depiction of Pépé’s fiercely loyal Algerian girlfriend, but it’s no more than one usually sees in films of this period, and certainly less than in Hollywood films of a similar stripe.
Full of surprises and with a smoky visual texture, the film depicts the feeling of being a victim of forces beyond one’s control and yet remaining passionate and courageous in the face of it. Gabin was already a star in France—largely due to his previous work with Duvivier. This film, a huge box office success, made him famous worldwide. It spawned a Hollywood remake called Algiers, starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, also a hit—but the original, as is often the case, is a far superior work.
Pépé le Moko is available on DVD.