Pépé le Moko
PÉPÉ LE MOKO
Director: Julien Duvivier
Production: Paris Film Production; black and white, 35mm; running time: 93 minutes. Released 28 January 1937, Paris. Filmed in Pathe studios in Joinville, exteriors shot in Algiers, Marseille, and Sete.
Producers: Robert and Raymond Hakim; screenplay: Julien Duvivier and d'Henri La Barthe (under pseudonym Detective Ashelbe) with Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson, from the novel by Detective Ashelbe; photography: Jules Kruger and Marc Fossard; editor: Marguerite Beauge; sound: Antoine Archaimbaud; production designer: Jacques Krauss; music: Vincent Scotto and Mohamed Yguerbouchen.
Cast: Jean Gabin (Pépé le Moko); Mireille Balin (Gaby Gould); Line Noro (Inès); Lucas Gridoux (Inspector Slimane); Gabriel Gabrio (Carlos); Fernand Charpin (Régis); Saturnin Fabre (Grandfather); Gilbert Gil (Pierrot); Roger Legris (Max); Gaston Modot (Jimmy); Marcel Dalio (L'Arbi); Frehel (Tania); Olga Lord (Aïcha); Renee Carl (Mother Tarte); Rene Bergeron (Inspector Meunier); Charles Granval (Maxime Kleep); Philippe Richard (Inspector Janvier); Paul Escoffier (Commissioner Louvain); Robert Ozanne (Gendron); Georges Peclet (Barsac); Frank Maurice (An inspector).
Duvivier, Julien, and Henri La Barthe, Pépé le Moko, in Avant-Scéne du Cinéma (Paris), 1 June 1981.
Gauteur, Claude, and André Bernard, Gabin; ou, Les Avatars d'unmythe, Paris, 1967.
Chirat, Raymond, Julien Duvivier, Lyons, 1968.
Anthologie du Cinéma 4, Paris, 1969.
Sadoul, Georges, French Films, London, 1972.
Missiaen, Jean-Claude, and Jacques Siclier, Paris, 1977.
Milhaud, Sylvie, Jean Gabin, Paris, 1981.
Brunelin, Andre, Gabin, Paris, 1987.
Billard, Pierre, Julien Duvivier, Milan, 1996.
Variety (New York), 24 March 1937.
Greene, Graham, in Spectator (London), 23 April, 1937.
Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1937.
New York Times, 4 March 1941.
Duvillars, Pierre, "Jean Gabin's Instinctual Man," in Films inReview (New York), March 1951.
Aubriant, Michel, "Julien Duvivier," in Cinémonde (Paris), 28 November 1952.
Nolan, Jack, "Jean Gabin," in Films in Review (New York), April 1963.
Cowie, Peter, "Jean Gabin," in Films and Filming (London), February 1964.
Renoir, Jean, "Duvivier, le professionel," in Figaro Littéraire (Paris), 6 November 1967.
Simsolo, Noël, in Image et Son (Paris), March 1972.
Vincendeau, Ginette, "Community, Nostalgia, and the Spectacle of Masculinity," in Screen (London), November-December 1985.
Garrity, H.A., "Narrative Space in Julien Duvivier's, Pépé le Moko," in French Review, vol. 65, no. 4, 1992.
* * *
Pépé le Moko had an immediate success scarcely rivalled in French film history. Its director, Julien Duvivier, was instantly hired by Hollywood, where the film itself was remade the next year, with Anatole Litvak directing Charles Boyer, as Casbah. Pépé ranked as the year's top film in many countries, including Japan, and it remains today a cult film of a stature similar to that which Casablanca enjoys in the United States.
A chronicle of the adventures of a dandy criminal hiding out in the casbah section of Algiers, Pépé le Moko is really a film about the bitterness of lost dreams. Pépé, as created by Jean Gabin, is in no way captive of the outlaw life he leads. Controlling his minions by dint of his authoritative personality and the notoriety of his name, he is above them all. Only Sliman, the Algiers police inspector, has an inkling of the real man and his motives. Pépé's gang is set off against the police force, while Pépé and Sliman struggle on a higher plane, respecting one another, respecting even more the fate that both believe rules them all.
The film opens with documentary footage and informational commentary about the Casbah. We learn of the mixture of races, the numbers and kinds of vices represented in the maze of alleys even the police fear to enter. Pépé's entrance is spectacular: a close-up of his hand holding a jewel, then his face tilted as he examines the jewel in the light. Soon after, while being pursued, he ducks into a secret hideaway and there encounters Gaby (Mireille Balin). Once again it is her jewels that attract both him and the camera in successive close-ups of their faces. When Sliman enters to escort Gaby back to the safety of the grand hotels, the knot is tied. Sliman even remarks, "It is written, Pépé."
Duvivier treats the entire intrigue as if with Sliman's magistral comprehension. Never indulging in suspense, he nevertheless inflates key moments with an abundance of stylistic flourishes. Most famous is the death of the informer Regis at the hands of Pépé and his gang. Shoved back against a wall, hysterical and pathetic, Regis bumps into a jukebox, setting off a raucous song just as his own victim, aided by pals, pumps a revolver full of bullets into his thick body. Just before this scene Pépé and Gaby express their love by reciting antiphonally the Metro stops they know, moving through a remembered Paris from opposite ends until they say together "La Place Blanche." Sliman looks on, knowing that he has caught Pépé in the net of desire and nostalgia. The Casbah will no longer serve as a refuge now that Gaby and thoughts of Paris have corrupted Pépé. Later, in a moment of quiet just before the denouement, a homesick old singer, caught like Pépé in the Casbah, puts a record on the gramophone and, tears in her eyes, sings along with the record, a song about the glories of Paris. Duvivier pans along a wall from a picture of this woman when she was young and beautiful, to the record player, and then to the woman's tear-choked face. It is a magnificent summation of the film's ability to summon up unfulfilled desire and nostalgia.
The film's dynamic conclusion unrolls directly from these sentiments: Pépé's obligatory outburst against another informer (Marcel Dalio), his breaking away from his common-law wife, his descent from the Casbah—accompanied by the theme music of the film and a totally artificial rear-projection that places us inside his obsessed mind. Duvivier wrings all the pathos of the lost dream from the finale, as Pépé finds his way aboard Gaby's ship and then is arrested inches away from her, though neither of them realizes how close they are. As the ship pulls out, he sees Gaby on the deck but the whistle of the ship drowns out his call. She is looking far above him, at the Casbah he has left. He tears his stomach open with a pocketknife. Virtually a private masturbation, his suicide is the climax of his longings, represented by the mysterious and elegant Gaby and by the memory of home. Both these sentiments and their outcome are of the style and spirit of poetic realism. One can see why the film was banned as demoralizing and debilitating first by the French government at the start of the war and then by the Vichy government once the new order had come to power. After the war it returned as a classic.