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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Pépé Le Moko

Director: Julien Duvivier
Country: France
Year: 1937

Background

The French film director Julien Duvivier was born in 1896. His career in show business began when he joined the Théâtre de l’Odéon at the age of 20, as an actor. Within two years, he secured a job at the venerable Gaumont studio, working as a writer and a general assistant. In 1919, at the age of 23, Duvivier directed his first film. By his death in October 1967 (four months after my birth), he had directed over 70 films in a bewildering variety of genres and styles. The uneven quality of his filmography has somewhat diminished his standing in comparison to other giants of “classic” French cinema (Jean Renoir, René Clair, Marcel Carné), but he directed a few films that are widely recognized as masterworks, including today’s film.

Pépé le Moko (1937) gained Duvivier some much-needed street cred across the pond, and he was subsequently invited to Hollywood to direct the Johann Strauss biopic, The Great Waltz. If you find yourself confusing The Great Waltz with The Last Waltz, just remember this crucial difference: The Great Waltz does NOT feature a performance by the 20th Century’s Greatest Musical Genius. I am speaking, of course, of Neil Diamond.

Largely due to this oversight, The Great Waltz is all but forgotten today.

Duvivier returned to France after WWII, but found his reputation tarnished by his absence during the war. Nonetheless, he continued to work in France until his death in a horrible, horrible car accident. Simply awful. Don’t even ask about it. Gruesome.

Although his films often had dark, fatalistic themes, highlighting human venality and hypocrisy, he found some later success as the director of a series of light-hearted comedies about the misadventures of a small-town Catholic priest, Don Camillo, who is perpetually at odds with the Communist mayor.

One common theme in the films of Duvivier: The sly malevolence of womankind.

Duvivier’s first collaboration with manly French heartthrob Jean Gabin was 1934’s Maria Chapdelaine. Gabin would go on to appear in several more of Duvivier’s films, most notably Pépé le Moko.

pepe_suave

Jean Gabin was born Jean-Alexis Moncorgé in 1904, the youngest of seven children. His parents were both cabaret performers. At the age of 19, he began performing in the famous Folies Bergères – surely you’ve heard of it? But then military service intervened, and he temporarily abandoned his champagne wishes and showbiz dreams.

After leaving the military, he changed his name to Jean Gabin and gained some renown by imitating the singing style of Maurice Chevalier: “Thank heaven, for leetle girls…”

Speaking of which… You probably already figured this out on your own, but if not: Warner Brother’s seductive skunk Pépé le Pew was at least partially a spoof of Jean Gabin in Pépé le Moko, and partially an homage to Maurice Chevalier.

Gabin toured South America, performed in the Moulin Rouge, and finally appeared in his first (silent) film in 1928. By 1930, he graduated to sound films, and went on to make a dozen or so more films before Duvivier’s Maria Chapdelaine in 1934. During this period, he “…developed the image which became his trademark: his face a mask of boredom and cynicism, a cigarette dangling insolently from his lips.” (jeangabin.net)

Maria Chapdelaine was a huge success, won the Grand Prix du Cinema, and was notable for one other reason: Gabin’s character died. Duvivier loved Gabin’s death scene, audiences swooned, and Gabin realized that he was on to something. Henceforth, many of Gabin’s characters seemed to wind up dead or – at the very least – extremely depressed.

In 1937, the one-two punch of Pépé le Moko (Gabin’s fifth collaboration with Duvivier) and Grand Illusion (his second collaboration with Renoir) secured his position as an internationally recognized and bankable movie star.

After a string of commercial and critical successes (Port of Shadows, La Bête Humaine, Le Jour se lève), WWII broke out. Gabin moved to Hollywood, divorced his wife, made a bunch of crap films, and starting knocking boots with Marlene Dietrich. Pissy diva behavior got him fired by RKO, so he joined General de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. Gabin was decorated several times for bravery while fighting with the Allies in North Africa, and was a soldier in the battalions that entered Paris after D-Day.

After the war, Renoir hired Gabin for another film, but then fired him for his outrageous behavior. He made a film with Marlene Dietrich, but it was a flop. He returned to the stage, and that was pretty much a bust. His relationship with Dietrich went south. His career was in a shambles.

But then… in 1954, he turned in an acclaimed performance in Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (roughly translated: Don’t Touch the Loot), started a production company with comedic actor Fernandel (star of Duvivier’s Don Camillo films), and generally turned his life around. Before his death in 1976, Gabin made close to fifty more films (95 total), many of them commercially successful.

At the age of 72, Gabin died after a heart attack. His body was cremated. In a military ceremony, his ashes were thrown into the sea from the ship Détroyat.

In 2008, a biography of Jean Gabin was published, titled: World’s Coolest Movie Star.

Oh dear. I should probably write something about the ill-fated French colonization of Algeria, but my fingers are cramped. Look it up yourself, or rent The Battle of Algiers and make sure to watch the Criterion special features. That’ll tell you everything you need to know.

Synopsis

We are looking at a map of the Casbah… “Pépé le Moko is still at large!” says a frustrated cop.

“Our people in Paris don’t understand why le Moko’s so untouchable!” shouts the guy from headquarters.

“Arresting Pépé in a place like the Casbah isn’t child’s play. It takes time.”

“Time! He’s eluded you for two years. And it’s cost you five detectives!”

There is reference to Pépé’s most recent bank job; machine guns, two million gone, etc.

“There is one reason that you in Paris don’t understand: The Casbah… The Casbah is a labyrinth… dark, winding streets like so many pitfalls. They intersect, overlap… stairways climb steeply like ladders or descend into dark, putrid chasms… There’s not one Casbah, but hundreds… and this teeming maze is what Pépé calls home… Every crook is his accomplice… He has spies on every rooftop… He has friends where we have enemies.”

Smooth, fez-wearing Inspector Slimane recites le Moko’s rap sheet: 15 convictions, 33 daylight robberies, 2 bank holdups, and burglaries beyond counting. “How could he not be admired?”

Slimane has some sort of long-term plan, but the other cops are impatient: “We’ll clean out the Casbah tonight!”

Meanwhile, Pépé and his gang are negotiating prices with the local fence, who, examining a jewel, exclaims “This ruby has such sex appeal! My dear Pépé, this burglary does you credit!”

The cops are on their way, so everybody scrams.

Régis, eager to win Pépé’s approval, warns Pépé’s girl, the fiery, dark-eyed Inès: “A busload of cops, like a wedding party after a groom!”

Inès climbs to the roof and escapes via the terrace, connected to the next terrace and the next, stretching to the sea. The cops, in fedoras and G-men seersuckers, swarm through the Casbah.

Traitorous Régis directs the fuzz to the fence. Gunfire is exchanged. Pépé, clutching his wounded arm, flees across the Casbah rooftops with his gang.

Taking a shortcut through someone’s house, Pépé comes across his wily nemesis. “Not with them, Slimane?” he asks. “Hasty work is sloppy work,” replies Slimane. “Slow is better… I’ll get you, Pépé. But in my own way.”

Also in Slimane’s company: a beautiful and wealthy European socialite, bedecked with tempting jewelry.

The next day, it’s time for a debriefing on the previous night’s Casbah raid. “As a cleanup, it was a wipeout,” opines Régis. “Forget about arresting him in the Casbah… The only way to arrest Pépé is to get him into town… We need bait. And bait I have: Pierrot.”

And so a plan is hatched: Lure Pierrot out of the Casbah, arrest him, and wait for Pépé to come to his rescue, “like a worried mother.”

“Why not call in the army?” asks one of the lawmen, unconvinced.

“Algeria was already taken by Marshal Bugeaud,” replies another. Zing!

Back in the Casbah, Pépé is holed up, restless and cranky. “You shouldn’t think about stuff,” advises the fiery, dark-eyed Inès. “You’re not used to it.”

“Two years of the Casbah, two years of you,” gripes Pépé. “It’s getting to be a round figure… Inès morning, noon, and night. You’re not a woman, you’re a diet!”

“You can never escape the Casbah,” she retorts, and she is not wrong.

“Women will be your undoing,” Slimane says to Pépé later, but Pépé just smiles and asks if the rich lady with the jewelry said anything about him after he left.

Régis the informant is now working his wiles on Pierrot, trying to convince him to come into town. Pierrot isn’t biting yet, but it looks like he’s wavering. Then a letter arrives, allegedly from his mother, and the trap is set.

“Some clocks read two o’clock and chime four, when it’s only 11:45,” warns Pépé. “Régis doesn’t ring true.” But Pierrot isn’t listening.

At a swanky restaurant, Inspector Slimane ingratiates himself into the company of a champagne baron and his friends. Present at the table, if you haven’t already guessed: The rich lady with the jewelry. Seems she wants another tour of the frightening and exotic Casbah, and Slimane gladly obliges.

Pépé and his gang are planning another heist when they get the word: Pierrot has left the safety of the Casbah and ventured into town. Pépé corners Régis in a bar and forbids him to leave until Pierrot returns, which it’s looking like will be at approximately never o’clock.

Long-suffering Inès shows up, and Pépé sends her into town to search for Pierrot. “Bring him back here, if you can.” While they wait for news of their compatriot, the men play a sullen game of cards. In the market, Inspector Slimane is acting as tour guide to the rich lady with the jewels. She wants to see Pépé again, and the feeling is mutual. Pépé is located; flirty talk and cigarette smoking follow.

All of this is observed by the fiery, dark-eyed Inès.

Why would Pépé throw over the beautiful, loyal Inès for the stiff blue-blood? Possibly because Rich Lady represents life outside the Casbah, real wealth, respectability, everything Pépé will never have? Or is it just because he’s a typically restless, fickle male, always looking for his next sexual conquest?

Inès never went to retrieve Pierrot, but it hardly matters because now he’s staggering into the bar, holding a gun and clutching his bleeding gut. Pépé, a generous man to his friends, allows the dying Pierrot to shoot the traitor Régis.

Incongruously joyous music comes from a player piano, and two men lay dead.

Pépé, unable to accompany his beloved Pierrot to his grave, is half-mad with grief and strong Irish whiskey (or whatever). “Don’t worry,” says Inspector Slimane. “One day, your enemies won’t stop you from leaving the Casbah… You’ll go like Pierrot. Feet first.”

But the death of his friend is not the only thing weighing on Pépé’s heart; it appears that Rich Lady will not be returning to the (clearly crime-ridden and dangerous) Casbah. In a drunken rage, Pépé kicks out his friends, including the fiery, dark-eyed Inès.

“I’ll go into town when I like!” shrieks Pépé. “I’m a free man! She can’t come up, but I can go down! And no one will stop me, you hear?”

I’ve said it before, and now seems like an appropriate time to say it again: This will end in tears.

Through the Casbah he races, pushing aside beggars and vendors alike, pursued always by the fiery, dark-eyed Inès! Unsurprisingly, the cops have been alerted, and they are waiting. Inès, realizing that Pépé is on the path to his doom, pulls out one last desperate trick: “She’s waiting for you at the house!”

To my amazement, Pépé falls for this and returns home. He and Inès share a tearful reconciliation.

But then, guess what? Rich Lady actually did come back to the crime-ridden Casbah! Pépé spies her in the market, and they retire to an upper room for some snacks and conversation. Ahem.

After their visit, Pépé tells her that she smells nice, and she promises to return the next day. As a sign of the depth of his feelings for her, Pépé allows Rich Lady to keep her jewels.

Now it’s time for a musical interlude: “Love paints everything a rosy shade! It’s the only thing that doesn’t fade!” The women of the Casbah cook, do the laundry, and shake it like an Algerian Polaroid.

The wily Inspector Slimane pays a visit to Rich Lady’s sugar daddy. “Your friend Miss Gaby is overly fond of local color,” he tells the man. “Let me make this clear: Miss Gaby must not return to the Casbah.”

Pépé le Moko waits alone, a man obsessed. There is a knock at the door, but it is only the fiery, dark-eyed Inès, and Pépé turns away in disgust. Carlos is sent into town with a letter for Rich Lady.

Pépé waits at the home of Ma Tarte, who sings him a sad song about Paris. “The Ayrab” (this is how everyone in the film addresses him) comes back with news: Carlos has been arrested. Gaby is being watched. Her hotel is surrounded. To venture into town is certain death.

“You will have to comfort Inès,” Pépé tells Ma Tarte. “With Carlos and me gone, that makes two widows.” He puts on his best white fedora, jaunty aviator’s scarf, and custom-made Italian shoes, and heads into town, determined to join Rich Lady on a ship to Paris. At the border of the Casbah he pauses, then smiles and lunges forth, fearless.

The fiery, dark-eyed Inès, who has had it up to here with Pépé and his shenanigans, is close behind. She finds the wily Inspector Slimane at the hotel, and tells him that they’re waiting at the wrong place; Pépé is at the dock. Pépé catches one glimpse of his beloved Rich Lady, and one glance at the fiery, dark-eyed Inès, before he is led away in handcuffs.

As the ship prepares to sail, Rich Lady comes to the railing. Pépé is looking at her, but she is looking at the Casbah.

The horn blows, the ship pulls away, and Pépé produces a heretofore-unmentioned knife, with which he kills himself.

What I Liked

The ambiance is fantastic; even more thoroughly imagined and realized than Casablanca. The Casbah is just as described in the opening scene; all twisty streets and hidden alleys, rooftop terraces connected to other terraces, tiled interior courtyards, the sea in the distance. All of this is captured by amazingly fluid camerawork.

The acting is all first-rate, particularly Jean Gabin as the dashing and doomed hero, Lucas Gridoux as the sympathetic but relentless Inspector Slimane, and Line Noro as the smoldering, long-suffering Inès.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Pépé le Moko is a relentlessly male film, which is only a problem because that includes a toxic strain of misogyny. “I have a face that men just like to hit,” laments Ma Tarte, but she’s not alone in that experience; every woman in the film is being abused, dominated, chased or abandoned by men. Even the guy we’re supposed to be rooting for treats his loyal girlfriend like a whore.

From what I’ve read, the original novel contained a much stronger dose of arrogant colonialist bullroar and unabashed racism. The film manages to soften that quite a bit, but let’s face it: Algeria was violently colonized by France. The film takes place in an “exotic” Algerian slum, but our “hero” is a (white) French criminal. He uses the Casbah as his private playground, yet he yearns to escape the clutches of the filthy slum and his nagging Algerian girlfriend and return to his rightful place of honor in Paris. Ya know? So there is that.

Finally – enough with the romanticizing of suicide! As far as I can see, Pépé could have had a good life in the Casbah, a loyal and beautiful girlfriend, a crack gang of jewel thieves at his disposal, free food from every street vendor… but in the end he gave it all up to kill himself over some unattainable ice queen. Meh.

Now if the unattainable ice queen was played by Louise Brooks… maybe.

Should You See It?

If you like Casablanca, or other poetic realist/romantic fatalist films (like Le jour se lève), or if – after watching Le jour se lève and Grand Illusion – you are a new member of the Jean Gabin fanclub, then you should definitely check out Pépé le Moko.

Next: Il Posto

One Comment

  1. Was it in a “Pepe Le Pew” cartoon? Or maybe it was a “Bugs Bunny” cartoon where someone says: “Take me to the Casbah…” When I heard that I always assumed that “The Casbah” was some fancy-schmancy bar or a tropical location somewhere or…little did I know that the “Casbah” was (is?) a slum. The “Mos Isley Space Port” for the south of France (I’m assuming). You know, filled with scum and villainy…

    Our story starts with the local police ruminating over the man in our title: “Pepe Le Moko” – seems that Pepe is a world class jewel thief/bank robber/Han Solo. A man who can take whatever he wants, when he wants and they are damned. They can’t catch him. Why? Well, he’s at “The Casbah!” This large area of houses upon houses. Where prostitutes sell themselves. Where there is lice and evil and all manner of ill repute. But Pepe, when we finally see him about 10 minutes in…is a man’s man. A man of the world. He is the king of the Casbah and everyone protects him. And what’s not to like? He’s handsome, he makes money, he has his priorities straight, he takes care of his underlings and, when he thinks he’s going to get laid – HE SINGS! (and, well, what guy DOESN’T sing when he thinks he’s going to get laid?)

    You see, though, this is a problem. As much as he has money and power in the Casbah – the police and a detective by the name of Slimane can’t seem to get him OUT of the Casbah. Slimane, though, is basically a guy who plays both sides of the streets. He has yet to arrest Pepe, though he swears he’s got the date written on his wall, and is seemingly his friend giving Pepe an ear into the police movement. But…the police also know that Slimane seems to hang out with Pepe a lot. Seems that Sliman is just biding his time for the right moment.

    When a beautiful woman (with lots of bling) comes visiting the Casbah as a tourist she meets up with Pepe and they are immediately smitten with each other. He falls head over heels in lust with her (though he has the pick-of-the-litter in the Casbah – Inez) and can’t wait to meet her again. Inez, you know the fiery Hispanic type, can’t stand to see Pepe swoon over another woman but Pepe is drawn in and he can’t think of anyone else.

    But…there’s a plot afoot. The police are told that Pepe’s right-hand-man, Peirott, could be used as bait for said jewel thief – so working with a back-stabbing assistant of Pepe’s (Regis) they take Peirott away for a good ol’ classic beat down. Pepe figures out that Regis is selling him out and it doesn’t take long for Peirott to show up an attempt to shoot the living shit out of Regis (someone else has to do it as Peirott is too beat up). When Peirott dies Pepe goes into a drinking spell and nearly throws himself to the cops – only to be rescued by the jealous suffering Inez.

    Still…Pepe can NOT get the woman out of his mind and after a few more double crosses and pointed fingers, Slimane figures the way to fix this is to tell the woman with the jewels that Pepe was killed so she could get on with her life. Pepe, though, is told by a confidant that the woman is leaving on the next boat to parts unknown (well, they’re were known – I just don’t remember them now…). Will Pepe exit the Casbah to find her? And what of jealous Inez? Is Slimane really playing both? Will Pepe get away?! By GOD MAN, why are you reading this crappy review! Get your hands on this film and find out! (okay, that’s not really an endorsement – I just wanted to add to some excitement)

    WHAT I LIKED:

    Wow – well there’s a lot to like – starting with the performances. The same guy who starred in this (Jason notes him above, I’m sure) starred in a couple other Janus films so I think that means he’s 3-2 to Michael Redgrave – HA!

    Everyone was very good. I liked the cinematography (with one strong caveat which I will mention soon) and I really liked the story telling. Pepe’s a suave debonair kinda guy but he’s also a brutal thug. And as much as early on in the story you want to be his best buddy – by the end you know that he would kill you if he needed to. It makes for a very realistic multi-dimensional character.

    This is a bit of a cat-and-mouse game and one played very well. There were no cookie-cutter villains and, like I said – Pepe was a very real thug.

    Same with the Casbah. I thought the characters and scenery were really well done. You felt like you were there. Maybe it’s a tad cleaner than they say from early on but, still, I didn’t mind visiting the Casbah. I wouldn’t mind going back.

    WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH:

    First, the cinematography (so I can get that out of the way). Though it’s all done very well there were scenes in the Casbah where there seemed to be an out-of-focus ring around the camera. In the center it was in focus, on the edges it was not. It wasn’t all the time just some of the time. I tried to figure…is it the Casbah? Is it the director trying to tell us something? I finally assumed: No. It was just what it is. Distracting.

    Second, though I liked the storytelling and the cat-and-mouse-ness of it all – I do have to take issue with the central story of Pepe and his attraction for “The Woman With the Jewels” – there’s really nothing there but a couple of conversations and a kiss. I don’t even think there’s a bit of grab-ass going on. Would this character go to these lengths to be with her after a cup of coffee and a bran muffin? Would he risk his life? The lives of his friends? His current girlfriend? Just so’s he can sing and get laid?

    THAT part of the story I found the least credible – though the actors do a grand job of trying to make it work.

    Oh, and you never see him steal jewels or rob banks or anything like that.

    BOTTOM LINE:

    Enjoyable film from the collection. Got some good things to recommend it – but not the best and certainly not the worst. Wait a minute…I think I feel a song coming on…

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