Criterion Sunday 172: Pépé le Moko (1937)

I’d already reviewed this film before embarking on this Criterion-watching journey, so my comments there still stand, though on second watch I’m prepared to be a bit more generous towards what it achieves. After all, as a classic of a certain genre (‘poetic realism’) and an antecedent for so much else (film noir, hard-boiled romantic leads, beautiful nihilism), this should really be more famous than it is. Jean Gabin is on fine form as the existentially ennui-laden yet dashing crim of the title, who falls for an upper-class woman slumming it in the Casbah of Algiers, and lets that lead him to lose his edge. The poetry comes through in the odd framing, an expressive use of the camera with a bit of soft focus and some nice little bits of montage (most notably when he first meets Mireille Balin’s femme).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
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 (and most recently at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 August 2017).

Criterion Sunday 1: La Grande illusion (Grand Illusion, 1937)

There’s something almost a little unfashionable, it seems to me, about filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps because fashions and lifestyles in the lead-up to world war were just a little more buttoned-down and less flamboyant, and stories had to keep pace with dolorous political events. But this also means it was a time when stories of great humanity and soul were being made, not least by French filmmaker Jean Renoir, whose great masterpieces of this era still sit solidly near the top of ‘best ever’ film canons. La Grande illusion is Renoir at the top of his form, crafting a beautifully-shot story of class antagonism set at a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. It depicts a changing world, where the aristocrats in charge (Pierre Fresnay’s de Boeldieu, and Erich von Stroheim’s von Rauffenstein) find that the extreme events of war have united them with people they’d not usually fraternise with (Jean Gabin’s mechanic Maréchal and Marcel Dalio’s Jewish nouveau riche Rosenthal, among others). It’s clear that each has different ideas of the value of war and about how it should be conducted, and ultimately the film sides with the lower-class characters, implying that aristocratic values are increasingly irrelevant and doomed to disappear. (Would that this had been proven true in the real world, where Renoir’s warnings about war’s futility were hardly taken on-board, and where our current ruling classes hardly seem to have moved on in some respects.) It’s all beautifully filmed in shimmering monochrome, and in the end somehow uplifting, despite the setting.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with these early Criterion DVD releases, there are some text-based extras, although the Press Book essays are fairly informative.
  • There’s a brief demonstration of the film’s restoration, and indeed the print is sparkling and gorgeously-toned.
  • An audio excerpt of the film winning at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards has the voices of Renoir and von Stroheim.
  • A trailer presents not the film but instead Renoir talking about the film and his experiences making it (looking back from the late-1950s).
  • Finally, Peter Cowie’s commentary is attentive to the film, giving some background and discussing some of the issues that Renoir raises.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir and Charles Spaak; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo, Erich von Stroheim; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 October 2014.

Pépé le Moko (1937)

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.

Pépé le Moko film posterCREDITS
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.