I have since subsequently reviewed this film again for my Criterion Sunday series.
I’ve written already about the way films can introduce us as viewers to strange and foreign worlds and experiences, and there’s definitely a self-conscious sense of this here, with its exotic Algerian locales. And yet, if this is a film taking as its setting the colonialist fringes of French power, it’s also very much one in which these expansions are questioned. Ultimately it expresses the homesickness of the audience surrogate, Jean Gabin’s title character; it seems to express something of the melancholy of imperialism.
Pépé is a jewel thief, a very good one, and very much sought after by the authorities. He has taken refuge in the dark and winding streets of Algier’s Casbah district, where he’s safe from the law, and yet here there is no honour among thieves; he lives in constant danger of being ratted out. His strength as a character is in his charm and the way he exerts authority over people, and he rarely admits to weakness. Yet when he meets a young Parisian woman Gaby (Mireille Balin), attracted initially to her sparkling diamonds, and falls in love with her, his strength fails him. Perhaps what he’s in love with is in part her freedom to return home — the freedom he both lacks and most desires — but as the film shows, it’s impossible to go home.
If at one level, Pépé’s fate is the usual one reserved for those who have transgressed against society’s laws, it’s also more pointed than that. For in many ways, he’s the template for the complicated yet brooding charismatic anti-hero of so many subsequent films. He is not just a criminal, he’s more the expeditionary soul of France, and with World War II looming, his story is a pessimistic look to the future.
It’s all very much Gabin’s show. Not many others get much of a look in — certainly not the forgettable female lead — and there’s little for the locals either, except perhaps for the shady police detective Slimane, though there are enough low-life racist caricatures in the background. Yet with Gabin’s performance, allied to the deft monochrome camerawork among the tight alleyways of the Casbah set, this stylistically looks forward to film noir while retaining some of the fast-paced snappy dialogue that defined so many films of this period. For these and for the fine central performance, Pépé le Moko remains fascinating.
Director Julien Duvivier; Writers Henri La Barthe [as “Détective Ashelbé”], Duvivier, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson (based on the novel by La Barthe); Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Jules Kruger; Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 19 July 2013.