Pépé le Moko (1937)
August 12, 2021 11:58 AM - Subscribe

Pépé le Moko, one of France's most wanted criminals, hides out in the Casbah of Algiers where he has connections, admiration, and even love -- but if he steps outside the native quarter, the police will grab him, for they surround and block the Casbah. It's a tolerable stalemate, until Pépé meets Gaby, a diamond-bedecked Parisienne who wanders into trouble while slumming with her friends. The 1938 American remake Algiers inspired both Pepe le Pew and Casablanca; the lineage is plain to see in the original film too.

The American version played up the romantic scenes, which benefited enormously from the Gaby of Hedy Lamarr, whose beauty defied description. But while those scenes retain their impact to this day, the French version, following the identical story, just makes more sense. In "Pepe Le Moko," the romance doesn't bring out the title character's fatalism but his exuberance. This Pepe has a real capacity for happiness.
-- Mick La Salle, rating it man-jumping-on-his-seat-clapping-like-a-trained-seal

While Duvivier gives us an Orientalist fantasy, the idea of the Casbah as unconquerable will have important echoes decades after Pépé [...] Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1967 The Battle of Algiers, the acclaimed docudrama of urban guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and torture in the struggle for national liberation, shows how the Front de la Libération Nationale utilized the Casbah. Not unlike Pépé and his gang, FLN militants use the same urban geography to elude French police and paratroopers. Once again, the French colonial state fails to exercise its authority in the Casbah. The films share striking visual similarities. Pépé le Moko’s opening montage looks like it could come from Pontecrovo’s film. Merzak Allouache’s Bab El-Oued City (1994) adds further depth to discussions of the difficulties of state control in Algiers with a postcolonial twist. Set in the late 1980s, on the eve of the horrors of the Algerian Civil War (an Islamist uprising against the secular government), the film tells the story of a young baker who makes croissants all night but can’t sleep during the day because of a new loudspeaker attached to the mosque. In a fit of sleep-deprived rage, he pulls down the loudspeaker and throws it in the Mediterranean. Local Islamist youth are furious and seek revenge. In the ensuing conflict, Allouache shows the ways in which the FLN state has failed to solve Algeria’s profound economic malaise and can’t maintain effective control over Algiers. Ironically, the former anti-colonial resistance fighters who once used the city’s geography are now unable to govern the rebellious city.
-- Michael Vann “Blame it on the Casbah”: The White Male Imperialist Fantasies of Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko
Currently streaming on HBO Max.
posted by fleacircus (4 comments total)

A very early scene has a French police captain luridly describing the underworld of Algiers as a nasty, terrible place, but the shots they were using to illustrate this looked kinda cool, and the disconnect had me uneasy. Fortunately that attitude got dropped pretty quick.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:58 AM on August 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

Oh that is a good catch about the streets Pepe was seeing as he walked out of the Casbah. I didn't process it! I wonder if Gaby ever stops representing Paris after that bubble is popped.

In the intro, I did not think the cops were speaking for the rest of the movie, and yeah the shots of the city looked really interesting and supposed sinister corridors and dark rooms looked like a great way to stay out of the sun. And even though it's not remotely a feminist movie and all the men are pretty casually misogynist, nevertheless there are a surprising number of female characters going about their lives and having input into the story, and the Ines-Pepe relationship is IMO more interesting than the Pepe-Gaby one. (Though I do appreciate the cruelty of the film not giving Pepe and Gaby a goodbye.)

It might even support a viewing of anti-colonial anxiety. If Pepe is like the truest spirit of France, well he kills himself trapped and (visually) imprisoned in Algiers. Also as the article in the second quote mentions, casting Fréhel as basically a version of herself, to sing over one of her own old songs that's like, "Don't leave Paris you'll regret it".. Or maybe it's just a peculiarly French expression of how every colonizer thinks their home country is best.
posted by fleacircus at 9:59 AM on August 13, 2021

The first Hollywood remake, Algiers, has some noir flavours likely accentuated by James M. Cain's presence as a one of the contributors to the script but it doesn't deviate too much from Pepe though the Algiers of Algiers is pretty generic backlot exotic Hollywood. There's also a second Hollywood remake - Casbah (1948) which is more musical than crime film. Not a great film but it has decent performances by Märta Torén, who died young and at one point was labelled the next Ingrid Bergman, as Gaby and Yvonne DeCarlo as Ines.
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:02 AM on August 13, 2021

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