Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pepe le Moko (1937) ** 1/2

Pepe le Moko 1

(There may be spoilers in this post.)

Director Julien Duvivier’s atmospheric depiction of a Frenchman trapped in the Casbah by his own criminal undoing was the inspiration behind Graham Greene’s novel and screenplay, The Third Man (1949), as well as the 1938 English remake, Algiers, starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. All three films share an undeniable element of fatalism and entrapment, but only one truly represents 1930s French poetic realism.

Pepe le Moko (Jean Gabin) is a French gangster hiding oupepe-le-mokot from the police in the winding labyrinth known as the Casbah.  As long as he stays in the Casbah, Pepe is protected by the other criminals and outcasts who live and work amongst him.  Even the local police inspector, Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) doesn’t dare to capture Pepe within the confines of the Casbah.  Yet, Pepe longs for Paris, and when a beautiful Parisian woman (Mireille Balin) ventures into the Casbah, Pepe finds himself tempted to trade one prison for another one.

Just as Howard Hawks used an “X'” in Scarface (1932) to signal when an unnatural death was imminent or Martin Scorsese used the same device in The Departed 6095023168_60b24884c5_b(2006), Duvivier employed the use of bars and grates to signal Pepe’s inescapable imprisonment inside the Casbah.  In addition, the director used tight camera shots, as well as extreme close-ups to create a sense of claustrophobia. Whilst he is free to roam the Casbah, everything around him—the narrow corridors and the crowded streets—are a reminder of his self-made prison.  Marc Fossard and Jules Kruger’s cinematography expertly captures the staid, fatalistic feel of the Casbah. 

While Pepe le Moko is not nearly as romantic as Algiers, it does push the envelope more than its Hollywood remake.  This was possible, of coupepe-le-moko-1936-10-grse, because it was made in France where the censors were more liberal—except in the Vichy days, when it was banned for being too fatalistic.  We get to see a two-faced informer killed and another man take his own life instead of going to prison.  Oh, and then there’s the fact that Balin’s character is obviously a kept woman who has no qualms about going to a brothel for a rendezvous with another man—just your typical depiction of acceptable French mores. 

What makes Pepe le Moko stand out, though, is its ending.  (This is when the spoilers begin…) From the tracking shot of only Pepe’s feet running down the Casbah steps to the final image of Pepe’s dead body enwrapped around a closed gate, Duvivier memorably ends his film in such a way that once you’ve seen it you will never forget it.  There is no American sentimentalism allowed to finds its way into PepeMokothis movie’s last moments. No, what we are dealt is French poetic realism: as Balin’s character longingly stares up at the Casbah believing Pepe is dead, he stands at the gates of the boat dock, handcuffed, yelling out her name just as the boat’s horn bellows.  Accepting his final imprisonment, Pepe then knifes himself and dies wrapped around the gate that separate’s him from his love, freedom, and France. What a way to end a film!

Overall, Pepe le Moko is a gritty atmospheric movie, with a claustrophobic feel.  It also made Jean Gabin a true French cinema icon. Yet, it is the ending that makes this film memorable. 


  1. I enjoyed this version but must admit the heat between Boyer & Lamar makes me like Algiers better. I think Gabin is great but his leading lady is not as commanding as Lamar and that gives the American version an edge in my book. Plus, I think Boyer wad brilliant at death scenes. Great piece Kim.

    1. You're right about Lamar being better than Balin, Gilby. Still, I like the tone of the original more than Algiers.

  2. Love the ending. It feels just right, and you are right, stripped of sentimentalism.
    What worked for me in this movie was the set. The casba is very realistic and mystic. You just know a lot of dodgy stuff is going on in there. What works less for me is that Pepe has a super cool girlfriend who is also a perfect match for him, yet he falls for the outsider tourist who so does not fit in the casba. I get it that she represents the life that he dreams of but it annoys me that he does not realize it is just a dream and a futile one at that.

    1. The set design is so realistic, TS. I think the issue with Pepe's girlfriend is she's a gypsy and not French, but I agree that she was pretty cool.

  3. I've wanted to see this ever since I saw Charles Boyer in "Algiers". I'm a pretty big fan of the American version, but I know I'll love the French version too.