The Greatest films of all time: 22. Pépé le Moko (1937)

Introduction:

Pépé le Moko” is the only masterpiece of the French filmmaker, Julien Duvivier whom, the great French director, Jean Renoir has called “a great technician, rigorist and a poet”. The film is a great classic example of “poetic realism” of 1930’s and has often been considered an early predecessor of “Film Noir”. The English author, Graham Greene, who was twice in 1966 and 1967 shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in literature and wrote the script for the “The Third Man” has claimed Pépé le Moko as “one of the most exciting and moving films I can remember seeing…it succeeds raising the thriller to a poetic level”. This great early classic that unfairly has been missed from many lists of great films, despite its undoubted direct and indirect impacts, admittedly and none on many future films and filmmakers, will be revived here into the memories of film lovers, students of cinema and filmmakers.

 

A Classic unlike any:    

Pépé le Moko” is a unique classic that when it is seen today for the first time would surprise the viewer of how many times, it has been adapted directly and indirectly in the future films, even some popular classics. Due to the significance of the film and its impact on many other films and filmmakers, it will be reviewed from its four important following aspects (or 4 Ss: Stage, Story, Script, and Screen creation):

  1. The Stage:

The stage of the film is not in studios, but the town of Casbah in Algeria, a town unlike others, that on its own is the best ready made studio for any thriller or action films. This place Pépé, a jewelry thief at large and the main protagonist of the film played by Jean Gabin, calls it home and it is his hide out from the French law and the police. Casbah is mysterious, of a high and a low sections, like a vast staircases where terraces descend stepwise to the sea. Its dark winding narrow streets twist and overlap to form a jumble of mazes perfect for a thriller. This multicultural town homes people of many nations, from Africans, to Arabs, Chinese, Gypsies, Spaniards, other Europeans and stateless. Pépé hides among these people who many have a similar situation, hence help and protect him form the French law. The crowded cafes, bazars, houses with roofs on top of each other is the best refuge haven for Pépé and his allies, in the best natural film stage. There are even natural shades, silhouettes, dim day and night lights and else that the camera and cinematography need for thrills and actions. Casbah naturally begs for a story and script like Pépé le Moko, and so makes it a winner at the start.    

 

  1. The Story:

This is a story of Pépé, a jewelry thief on the run from the French police for numerous thefts that he has done. He is hard to catch as long as he is in the uptown with his people and allies, and not in the downtown where rich white mostly French people and the law live. He has spies on every corner, foot steps and roofs to warn him of the approach of the police to catch him whenever they enter the large hideout. Pépé despite being a thief, he is not “a cash register”, but a people’s person. He takes care of them and they take care of him and they in fact specially women love him all. A gypsy woman, Ines played by Line Noro is in love relationship with Pépé and he lives with her. But soon another woman, a rich beauty, named Gisel or Gaby played by Mireille Balin enters the scene and a triangle of love, jealousy, mystery and thrills rolls in. While Ines is convenient and an old love, Gaby is a fresh and new love, a Parisian whom reminds Pépé of his home, specially Paris with all its metro, café, café au lait and else. Finally like many others alike, this love triangle is not lasting and ends in tragedy of the death of our hero, Pépé le Moko. While the story is not a unique and special one, but the script and its depiction and creation on the screen on the stage of Casbah, make it all a classic for years to come and hard to resist adaptation.

  1. The Script:

The script written by Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson is in its own right a great classic example of plot making and dialogues that demands frame by frame review. In fact due to the rapid tempo of French language, the script of the film would be better appreciated when watched with subtitles. The poetry of the film is mostly recognized in the dialogues and better so for the non-French speaking audience through the subtitles.

At the start of the film when all the French and local detectives gather in the police station to plot the arrest of Pépé, They talk about him and the town of Casbah through a documentary-like dialogue along with the camera showing the town in a very descriptive and graphic effective style, unlike any until then. On describing Pépé’s numerous burglaries, one detective states “in this room we don’t have enough fingers to count his burglaries.”

The script makes an ordinary detective film not just poetic but politic, when the whole town of Casbah in Algeria are against the French law and when a large squad of the police fail to catch Pépé, one of them asking “Why not to call the army?!”, another one responds “Algeria has already been taken by France!” When Pépé is with Gaby for the first time and all his memories of Paris is revived, he confesses “When I’m with you, it’s like I’m in Paris”. Or when La mère Tarte played by Renee Carl, and a confidant of Pépé seeing him in grief of Gaby not showing up for her promised date, in relieving his sorrow, she states “When I feel down, I change the era”! Then she goes and plays on old Parisian song on a phonograph, while the camera showing her youth on a frame on the wall. “I go back to my youth when on the stage in Paris”. But the song played in French is about the story of poor French immigrants in New York who left their homeland for a better life in the new continent. But alas when in Paris “everyday was a new chance”, now in the strange land “no cent in our pocket”.

 

  1. The Screen creation:

The unique stage of Casbah, the story of Pépé and his allies, mostly the occupied Algerians against the French occupiers, and a poetic realistic script needed a great chef or director to make a classic on the silver screen for years to last and for adaptation, cinematic example and influence on so many filmmakers. Julien Duvivier achieved this great with a poetic imagery and the assistance of his cinematographers, Marc Rossard and Jules Kruger.

From the start, while Casbah is described documentarily, the camera with its fit panoramic and close-up shots with all angles, intertwines well with the script. That is how from the first scene, the viewer recognizes the influence and many adaptations of the film in many others, from “Casablanca”, to “The Third man”, “French connection”, “Frantic” and even the most recent thriller and action films such as “The Bourns” and “Taken” series. Specially the chases in the sophisticated maze streets and alleys of Casbah, with bottom-up angle shots to up-down angle shots from the roofs would surprise the viewers and the present students of film and the today’s filmmakers of such thrilling and artistic creation in 1937.

When it comes to the depiction of feelings as the film is a melodrama as well, the close-up shots of faces, eyes to eyes with freezing frames, unusual for its time, then copied and replicated for years to come by others, are more proof for recognition of the film as a classic and as one of the greatest films of all time.

The film originally a detective one, becomes a thriller, then action, a gangster story, melodrama and even musical when all the local women in town seeing Pépé happy in love with Gaby, sing and dance along with him. The scenes of Regis, the local spy played by Fernand Cahrpin, who leads to the shooting and finally the death of Pépé’s young companion, being cornered by Pépé and his gangster allies remind us of many future gangster and mafia films with similar scenes, but without their violence and blood shed. The madness of Pépé after the death of his young companion, reminds us of classic scenes of films such as “On the waterfront” of Elia Kazan with Marlon Brando, to just mention an example.    

Conclusion:

In closing remarks “Pépé le Moko” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:Pépé le Moko” is original in its classic thriller with flavors of poetic realism, melodrama, action and even musical. The film is original for many detective film of the future to follow its footsteps, in regard with chasing, its special stage with narrow streets and alleys, different angle shots, close-up shots, etc. This classis is original in using some poetry in the script while being a simple thief chasing film.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Pépé le Moko” is in its poetic script, its dialogue, all the camera works, the set design and choice that creates the right thrills, the freezing frames, close up faces, eyes to eyes and so more that needs to be studied frame by frame.
  3. Impact Factor:Pépé le Moko” has had such impact factor unlike not many other films even some great classics. Its impact has not been only on the number of other future films but the high quality films, great filmmakers and even screen writers, such as Graham Greene, Carol Reed, Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, Roman Polansky and more. The film was quickly remade in US under the title of “Algiers” a year later in 1938 directed by John Cromwell. It was again remade by Universals in 1948 under the title of “Casbah” a musical film noir by John Berry. Despite all these as mentioned earlier, this great classic has been rarely recognized on many great films list. This is a true testimony of how poor, biased and unreliable are such lists.
  4. Survival:Pépé le Moko” has survived well to this day, through its many adaptatiosn and impact that it has had on other films and filmmakers. The film despite being a black and white from 80 years ago could still be watched, enjoyed, thrilled and appreciated.

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