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  • Ravi Swami

"Pépé le Moko", Dir : Julien Duvivier, 1937

Julien Duvivier had directed Jean Gabin in a number of films prior to 1937's Pépé le Moko though it was Gabin's role in this film that effectively turned him into a major star of French Pre and Post-War cinema, though his film career had begun in 1930 in a film entitled "Everybody Wins".

Pépé le Moko's plot concerns the titular character (Gabin) who is holed up in the labyrinthine location of the Casbah of Algiers - a maze-like muddle of buildings, stairways and alleyways - and on the run from the French police following a series of successful robberies. The film opens in the office of the local police constabulary where a visiting French police inspector is expressing his frustration over the slow progress in bringing Pépé to justice while the local chief of police explains to him that their quarry is notoriously slippery and that locating him within the Casbah is a near impossible task and relies on their dependance upon local informers who can be unreliable since Pépé is considered something of a hero amongst the denizens of the Casbah. Chief amongst the informants is Inspecteur Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) who maintains cordial relations with the ruthless but charming Pépé while harbouring a desire to put an end to his ability to outwit the authorities.

A series of events result in the police closing the net on Pépé that leads to a gun-fight where some visiting tourists get caught up in the fracas and as he once again manages to evade capture this leads to an encounter with a beautiful young woman who is accompanying her wealthy much older husband with friends on a tour of Algiers. Pépé is immediately enamoured by her, and unusually for him, of secondary interest are the diamonds and pearls that adorn her, an attraction that is mutual since she has heard of Pépé and his exploits as a wanted man.

It is established early on that Pépé is a serial womanizer - Inspector Slimane states at one point that there will be 2,000 widows at his funeral - and is popular with women in the Casbah across the board, however, he is in a long-term relationship with Inès (Line Noro) who tolerates his infidelities since she is desperately in love with him.

Following the unsuccessful attempt to capture their prey, a plot is hatched by the police to lure Pépé away from the Casbah using Pierrot (Gilbert Gil), a young man whom Pépé treats like a son, but this also goes awry. However, thanks to Slimane, who has been keeping an eye on Pépé's romantic trysts with "Gaby Gould" (Mireille Balin), the wealthy man's young wife, they see this as a trump card to ensnare Pépé once and for all and set another trap for him.

Made 5 years before "Casablanca", which owes more than just a superficial similarity in terms of location, Pépé le Moko is a classic film-noir produced at a time when French film makers were transitioning from silent cinema to sound and in this regard one of it's outstanding features is the dialogue - a great deal is made of the genial verbal sparring between Pépé and the people around him that feels very natural and off the cuff, though he is of course an iron fist in a velvet glove, revealed when he loses his cool over his desire to join Gaby Gould and is beginning to feel the tightening of the noose as the police close in on him, and his desire to escape the wretchedness of the Algiers Casbah for a life with the sophisticated Gaby reaches a peak. There's a sense that the Duvivier is writing a rule book for the form of film-noir going forward, from the moody, shadowy environs of the Casbah, shot in striking monochrome and filmed entirely in elaborate studio sets, with minimal location work, even if Hollywood had a lead in this direction - French cinema would continue this exploration of the narrative form of cinema right up to the arrival of the French New Wave of the 1950's/60's. In this era of AI and Chat GPT there is a sense of the cheapening of both words and images and in a lot of contemporary cinema what is actually said by characters becomes secondary or extraneous to the visuals, it may as well be absent altogether, and it is this aspect - how people converse with each other - that adds nuance and depth to characters who are never overwhelmed by the world they move through, no matter how elaborate or visually seductive, which is very evident in Pépé le Moko.

"Pépé le Moko" Dir : Julien Duvivier, 1937

Criterion Channel.

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