YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Movie Review

'Pepe le Moko' Prowls the Casbah Again

So, you've seen 'Algiers'? Here's a chance to marvel at the beautifully crafted 1937 French gangster classic on which it's based.


"Pepe le Moko" is the stuff that dreams are made of.

An acknowledged classic of doomed romanticism and atmospheric fatalism, this 1937 French film was such a hit on its release that Hollywood promptly remade it as "Algiers" and kept the original off U.S. screens for more than four years.

Despite this, "Pepe le Moko" has been enormously influential, not only in film but in numerous corners of American popular culture. It rooted the exotic Casbah in our collective imaginations; it's what Chuck Jones pillaged when he named a character Pepe le Pew; it's the film without which "Casablanca" likely would not have been made.

Directed by Julien Duvivier, it featured the iconic actor Jean Gabin in one of his signature roles and intoxicated almost everyone who saw it, from Jean Cocteau ("a masterpiece") to Pauline Kael ("superb filmmaking") to Graham Greene, who called it "one of the most exciting and moving films I remember seeing," a feature that succeeded by "raising the thriller to a poetic level."

Unseen in 35-millimeter in this country for nearly 60 years, "Pepe" is the latest deserving recipient of the Rialto Pictures make-over treatment. Rialto, which has re-released such French classics as "Rififi," "Contempt" and "Band of Outsiders," struck a newly restored print and used Lenny Borger to write new subtitles that capture the spirit as well as the letter of Henri Jeanson's glowing dialogue.

Playing at the Nuart in West Los Angeles for a week, "Pepe" is hardly some revered relic suitable only for a museum shelf. Beautifully crafted, movingly acted, still involving and entertaining, this is just the kind of film people are talking about when they say they don't make them like this anymore.

Much of the credit goes to star Gabin in the title role. He plays a French gangster who robbed a bank in Paris of millions of francs and then fled to the Casbah, the Arab quarter of Algiers, with his gang.

Fearless, humane, an intensely masculine and unflappably charismatic presence who was completely natural on screen, Gabin is a star for whom there is no exact American equivalent. Often cast as a doomed man, the actor combines characteristics of Gary Cooper and Jimmy Cagney and comes up with an immaculately dressed gangster who makes women feel faint. Pepe may notice a woman's jewels first, but he's too much of a gentleman to say so.

Naturally, the French police are exasperated beyond words at their inability to capture Pepe, who has eluded them for two years in the labyrinthine Casbah, "where dark, winding streets form a jumble of mazes ... colorful, dynamic, multifaceted, there's not one Casbah but thousands."

A true prince of thieves, Pepe is so beloved in the Casbah that police can't make a move against him without his knowing every step they take. "He's God up there," someone says. "You can't arrest God." Only the oily, insinuating Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) thinks he can capture the man, if only he can find the proper bait to lure him downtown.

With Ines the Gypsy (Line Noro) as his current flame, Pepe may be irresistible to the opposite sex, but he's never been in love. "I give them my body," he says, "but I keep my head."

Pepe also has a dark secret: His refuge has become a prison. Starting to feel hemmed in by the Casbah, Pepe finds himself missing Paris more and more.

All these feelings intensify when Pepe has a chance meeting with the glamorous Parisian Gaby (Mireille Balin), visiting Algiers as the mistress of a champagne tycoon. True to form, Pepe notices her platinum and diamond bracelets first, but soon he is mad for her, oblivious to the numerous complex webs woven around him as the film moves toward its celebrated poetic ending, redolent with longing and despair.

None of this could have succeeded as well as it does without the exemplary work of director Duvivier. Combining location work with studio scenes, he fills "Pepe" with teeming street life, the physical parallel to the film's psychological world of scheming, double-dealing and betrayal.

His Casbah is magical and dangerous, a place of whispers and shadows, where the unforgettably exotic lies just beyond a beaded curtain.

Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

Los Angeles Times Articles