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).

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.

L’Argent (1928)

There are many film festivals which take place every year, many quite tightly focused on a genre or country, which makes the Fashion in Film Festival one with a rather broader and more malleable purview. This year they based their event around the films of French director Marcel L’Herbier, who had rather an eye for costume design, not least in this late-silent era film.


FESTIVAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Fashion in Film Festival || Director Marcel L’Herbier | Writer Marcel L’Herbier and Arthur Bernède (based on the novel by Émile Zola) | Cinematographer Jules Kruger | Starring Pierre Alcover, Brigitte Helm, Marie Glory (as “Mary Glory”), Henry Victor | Length 166 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), Sunday 19 May 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Pathé

Not unlike the more famous Napoléon (1927) of Abel Gance, L’Argent‘s great length and its place near the end of the silent period of cinema has sometimes marked it out as being some sort of summation of a certain trend in French cinema, often called ‘impressionism’ (though that’s a contentious term). There’s certainly something to that assessment, with its freely moving camera and tight psychological focus on a small number of characters. Its reach may be greater than what it ultimately achieves, but that’s still quite a bit.

I haven’t read the original novel, but by all accounts this is a fairly loose adaptation, updating the original to the contemporary period (which is the kind of thing that even in modern films attracts criticism). At the centre is Saccard (played by Pierre Alcover), very much the image of the gruff fat cat banker, whose Banque Universelle is foundering in the markets. He seizes on a meeting with the naïve Jacques Hamelin (Henry Victor), an aviator with grand plans to drill for oil in Guyana, exploiting him to bolster the B.U.’s position and making advances on his wife Line (Marie Glory) in his absence.

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