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PEPE LE MOKO

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin, Lucas Gridoux, Line Noro
Director:  Julien Duvivier
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  94 Minutes
Release Date:  January 7, 2003

Film ****

Some years before the French coined the term “film noir” to describe the dark, criminal world of America’s post World War II cinema, they actually crafted one of their own…a movie that in 1937, was so striking and influential, that America actually created a virtual shot-by-shot remake a year later.

That French film was Julien Duvivier’s Pepe le Moko.  It has been called one of the most influential films ever.  That’s all you need to know going in.  Watching the film, you’ll fill in the rest of the blanks yourself.

Or, put another way, how many great pictures can you imagine NOT being made if not for this film coming out first?  Before Algiers (the aforementioned American remake), there was Pepe le Moko.  Before Casablanca gave us a sad love story set against an exotic city backdrop peopled with seedy characters, Jean Gabin was romancing Mirielle Balin in the strikingly photographic Casbah.  Before Bogart and Cagney made good in their careers playing antiheroes, there was the great Gabin again, creating in Pepe a criminal character audiences couldn’t help but like because of his charm and basic decency.  Before Omar Sharif ever collapsed without catching the eye of Julie Christie…well, you get the idea.

With striking expressionistic lighting (again, what would become a staple of noir), incredible camerawork, an absorbing setting that was both enticing and dangerous, and Gabin’s solid performance in the lead, Pepe le Moko is a superb example of why some stories can just be told better cinematically.  Though the picture was based on a popular novel, there’s something about Duvivier’s work that makes the story seem indelibly textured and visual.  You don’t want to read about these characters or this place; you want to experience them.

As the movie opens, we learn that the French expatriate Pepe has been a thorn in the side of the law in Algiers for some time now.  They want to capture him, but he has pretty much free reign in the Arabic section of the city, the Casbah.  He knows its intricate maze-like system of rooftops and corridors, and he has many friends there.  Occasionally, when a too-smart-for-his-own-good cop tries to enter the Casbah to bring him out, he fails in a big way.

Pepe is well liked by the colorful residents of the Casbah…one unusual friendship he forges is with an inspector, Slimane (Gridoux), who smilingly vows to capture Pepe someday.  All he needs is patience, he muses.  One day, Pepe will set foot outside the Casbah and have no more protection.

Pepe is loved by the gypsy-like Ines (Noro), but his romantic fortune plays a harsh trick on him when he meets the debonair Gaby (Balin).  A well-adorned French woman, Pepe first regards her jewelry with the eye of a seasoned thief, but later views the whole woman as symbolic of what he’s been separated from in France.  They fall in love and begin to meet in secret in the Casbah…and this love proves Pepe’s undoing.

Much has been said about Jean Gabin’s performance in this film, and I have to add to it:  his work is superb.  He brings life to one of the movie’s first “good” bad guys.  He gives Pepe humor, vitality, strength and weakness all at the same time, while crafting the kind of character that Hollywood would have essentially been lost without. 

The finale, which I cannot divulge, is unforgettably beautiful and tragic…and probably, in the world that was to become film noir, inevitable.  Love does not redeem us from our sins, nor alter us from the course of the path we set out for ourselves.  That’s the kind of harsh moral that would end up practically defining a decade’s cinema.

Video ***

Criterion’s restored presentation of Pepe is a thing of joy.  Right from the opening moments, you’ll be struck by how clean and crisp this classic movie is.  Brighter scenes work the best; there is strong contrast and terrific levels of detail.  Darker images were understandably a little harder to clean up; most of the tell-tale signs of aging are seen in them (more debris, scratches, shimmer and so on).  Still, the overall offering is decidedly better than the majority of the films from the 30s I’ve seen on DVD…a laudable effort.

Audio **1/2

The simple mono soundtrack is enhanced by 1) very little in the way of distracting noise or hiss, and 2) bits of dramatic dynamic range coming from the action, emotional intensity, and musical cues.  Better than average for mono.

Features ***1/2

Criterion supplements this title generously with nice extras, starting with a 30 minute or so collection of excerpts from a 1978 television documentary Remembering Jean Gabin, which will give you plenty of good information about both the man and the artist.  Excepts from Ginette Vincendeau’s BFI Classics study of Pepe combine text, pictures and video to illustrate the background of the story and the setting.  A ten minute 1962 interview with director Julien Duvivier is short, but charming.  My favorite extra, though, is the extensive comparison between this movie and the American remake Algiers, which demonstrates just how carefully this picture was duplicated!

Rounding out are an original trailer and a printed essay by film critic Michael Atkinson.

Summary:

Pepe le Moko is an influential film classic that paved the way for countless other classic movies, while remaining strikingly original and entertaining in its own way, thanks to a great visual style and a command performance by Jean Gabin.  Once again, Criterion keeps film history alive by preserving a much-needed movie classic on DVD with restored image and sound and features galore.