Sunday 29 July 2012

Pepe le Moko (1937)

Pépé le Moko
There are so many pleasures going through the list, especially if like me you are forcing yourself to see all the movies. One of the things I enjoy is to see all the difference scenery, how people lived in olden times and odd places. It is fascinating to see how cloths change, or cars or hairstyle. Attitudes change over time and what you can show on film. It is fun to hear how speech is evolving, that people then would say the same things then, but in an entirely different way. And sometimes I can just sit and gawk at all the wonderful places that the movies travel through. I have never been to the Kasbah in Algiers and even if this turns out actually to have been a studio production it is still great to have a story placed such an exotic contemporary (at the time) location.

The Kasbah is a mystic labyrinth, a city within the city, filled with an exotic mix of people of any kind but with a slant to the shady side. The Kasbah is the original oriental town with tiny alleys and rooftop passages and a sense of community that sets it apart from the surrounding French city. It is the past meeting the present, the Oriental meeting the Western. For outsiders the Kasbah is impenetrable. It is entirely a world of its own. The Kasbah is ruled by a criminal mastermind who is everywhere and nowhere within the Kasbah. He is the Godfather of the orient. The outside authorities would love to get their hands on him, but in the Kasbah they are powerless.

This is an awesome setting. The potential for mysticism, secret operations, and high crime is enormous.

So much more disappointing is what we really get.

What sort of fellow would you imagine this criminal mastermind, this Pepe le Moko, to be? An oriental Corleone? A mystic Berbian overlord? Nope. He is something as trivial as a French bank robber who has fled to Algiers to avoid justice. Okay a very handsome bank robber, but not the kind of super villain you would have expected. This guy just does not belong here. He seems awfully misplaced. He long for Paris and it is not believable at all that he should have the native clout to make it big in the Kasbah.

Already disappointed by this revelation it may come as no surprise that the high drama that is the plot of the movie is not some intricate criminal endeavor, but the comparatively simple matter of getting Pepe out of the Kasbah so he can be arrested and the resolution of this turn out to be equally unsatisfying.

The problem here is that “Pepe le Moko” is fundamentally just a tragic love story placed in an exotic setting. The problem with that is that I expected so much more, that the potential is so much bigger.

Pepe is handsome, melancholic and emotional bordering manic-depressive. He is a gentleman thief who is safe in the Kasbah, but also imprisoned because he long for Paris. Sometimes he explodes in brutal violence, at other times he sings from the rooftops. He is played by Jean Gabin, the Leonardo diCaprio of the 1930ies French cinema, and his attitude of aloofness is similar. Ines, Pepes girlfriend in the Kasbah, genuinely loves him and even though she is a crafty and intelligent girl Pepe scorns her. To him she is Kasbah.

When Gaby Gould enters the Kasbah and Pepe meets her it is entirely different. She is Paris and thus his heart’s desire. To hell with friends and plans and safety, he wants to go home. And Gaby is home.

This is all very romantic, the handsome prince of thieves and the beautiful parisienne, but it also seems incredibly forced.

The subplots with the unreliable Regis who, paid by the police is tricking Pepe’s protégé Pierrot out of the Kasbah to lure Pepe himself out, or the resident policeman Slimane, who is clearly up to something but manage to walk around untouched in the Kasbah, are far more in line with the context and would have been more interesting to explore. Instead they seem almost inconsequential to the love story/bad case of homesickness that is the core of the movie.

I love the setting, the supporting characters are interesting and they act out well, but at the core of it the movie is unsatisfying. It smells like a missed opportunity.


  1. Yeah, I was disappointed with this, too. So much potential and such a sappy story in the end. What a waste.

  2. Not a fan of Jean Gabin? Can't wait to see how you review some of his other films!
    I like Pepe le Moko much better than the American remake, Algiers, starring Charles Boyer. But, good point about the mastermind in the Kasbah being a Parisian--that is definitely odd.

    1. I like Gabin allright, I just find him hopelessly misplaced in the Kasbah. He was quite good in La Grande Illusion.