I know what thoughts my imaginary readers are having.
“Sweet Jesus, not another foreign film! Does it at least have Angelina Jolie in it?”
Unfortunately La Jolie’s appearance in this film would violate the laws of physics since Her Birth was in 1975 and this film was released in 1937. However, even lacking Her Presence, this film is a Triple-Bonus-Pak!
First, it is an excellent French gangster film by Julien Duvivier which is set in the Casbah of Algiers and shot both in the studio and on location in Algeria. Secondly, it has a very interesting cameo by the French music hall singer Fréhel. Lastly, it’s a vehicle for Jean Gabin, one of the great stars of world cinema and an actor who should be watched as often as possible.
The central plot device of “Pépé” is good enough that Hollywood bought the American rights and, instead of releasing it, immediately remade it as “Algiers” with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. The Americans suppressed the original film and, as far as I know, “Pépé Le Moko” never had a theatrical run in this country.
The plot device that the producers bought is simple but clever. A bank robber (Gabin) pulls off a huge robbery in Marseille and flees to Algiers where he hides in the Casbah, the Arab quarter of town. The Casbah is a medieval warren of narrow, twisting streets where the French police go only in force. The people protect Pépé because he’s generous and charismatic and the cops can never catch him. But he can’t leave the Casbah or they will. He’s there with some gang members and his gypsy girlfriend but he is terribly homesick for Paris. So when he meets a glamorous Parisienne….
The emigrant’s yearning for home can also be a yearning for one’s lost youth and this is where Fréhel comes in. She’s a very interesting figure . She was a pretty teenage performer back before The Great War but by the 30s, decades of alcoholism had bloated and distorted her looks. In her scene with Gabin he’s depressed and she tells him how she deals with her sorrows.
There’s an actual photo of Fréhel as a radiant Belle Époque jeune fille on the wall. She says she looks at it and pretends it’s a mirror. Then she puts on one of her records, “Où est-il, donc?” (Where is it, then?). It’s a lament by a French immigrant in New York, who is missing Paris. She listens to a verse and then sings along with the next one, crying. It’s a strange and interesting scene if you don’t know who she is and even more interesting if you do.
Gabin is at the top of his form, charming, vigorous and occasionally scary. Duvivier put together a great supporting cast and, in an interesting move for the 30s, has an Arab police inspector (Lucas Gridoux) who, although slightly creepy, is always the smartest guy in the room and the only one with a chance to catch Pépé.
Once again thanks to the Criterion Collection. They have more influence on the dissemination of great films than any film archive.