Wednesday 2 November 2011

1,001 Films: "Pépé le Moko" (1937)

Julien Duvivier's crime drama Pépé le Moko now looks more than ever like a source of inspiration for Casablanca - but also, perhaps less expectedly, for something like The Wire. We're in Algiers, where a frustrated police force has been reduced to hanging out in the criminal underworld in the hope their prey - in this case, Jean Gabin's master thief Pépé, sheltering in the Casbah - might let their guard down. Given the taut plotting of its immediate Hollywood equivalent, what's surprising is just how much hanging out there is in the wake of the opening police raid: Duvivier is interested in getting a mood, an atmosphere, before shaping a narrative, and there are more songs than there would have been in any Warner Bros. crime drama of 1937 - again, maybe this is where Curtiz and Hal Wallis got the idea for "As Time Goes By" from.

A sense of place is also critical to the whole, for this is surely a prototypical hood movie: a mix of location shooting and superior production design reconstructs the Casbah as a ghetto at least as labyrinthine and encaging as any suburb of latter-day Baltimore or L.A.. "What do you make of this animal?," Pépé asks the mistress of a champagne importer who, with her friends, has come down for the day, clad in her finest jewellery, to see how the natives live, establishing a whole, sad tradition of on-screen slum tourism. Yet the characterisation generally avoids black-and-white extremes in favour of something more shaded. Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux, in what's essentially the Claude Reins role) regards Pépé with wry amusement, moving effortlessly between worlds; the traitorous Regis (Fernand Charpin) is very much in the Sydney Greenstreet tradition of the doomed patsy, and it's with the latter's death that Duvivier reveals a horror and dismay at the fact all this gameplaying should have to result in bloodshed.

If there's one glaring liability, it's right there at the centre of the film, in the form of a romance that proves far less heady and intoxicating than its surrounds: Pépé oversells the charms of the beefy Gabin, a gorilla-in-a-suit whose chestbeating in the central cafe sequence reveals a certain limitation of technique; restrained by Marcel Carné, he was to fare altogether better as the dead man-in-waiting in 1939's Le Jour se lève. And I can't be alone in finding Mireille Balin entirely unsympathetic as a heroine who stands for nothing but material wealth - a big, brassy ring, dripping with diamonds and the promise of a better life, for the anti-hero to paw at. Even if one can see why Pépé might fall for her Gaby Gould, I think you'd struggle to find anything particularly tragic about the outcome of their tryst - which, again, is why Le Jour se lève stands as much the better of these two films.

Pépé le Moko is available on DVD through Optimum Home Releasing.

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