Pépé le Moko (1937)

“Blame it on the Casbah.”

‘Pépé le Moko’, directed by Julien Duvivier in 1937, is a French thriller set in the Casbah quarter of Algiers. The title character is a criminal played by Jean Gabin who has escaped from Paris and has hidden in the lawless labyrinth of the streets of Algiers. He slips from person to person through a network of sympathetic locals and ex-pat gangsters, so the police are forced to devise elaborate ruses to lure him out of the city and into their hands. Pépé falls in love with Gaby, played by Mireille Balin, the lover of an affluent businessman and the police use their affair as a lever to manipulate Pépé. It’s a claustrophobic film: Algiers is depicted as an insular and alien place, only understandable to locals and criminals. The thing that stands out is the design and cinematography, particularly within the Casbah itself. The way the city is shot, disconcertingly twisty with vertiginous streets plummeting to the sea, is reminiscent of Bengali director Satyajit Ray’s depiction of Varanasi in ‘Aparajito’, the second film of the Apu trilogy. It’s not just the design of the sets, but also the way the camera spins around and crawls through them. Duvivier uses the camera as an invisible character, pursuing and leading his anti-hero in the same way the police and his obsession with Gaby draws him towards taking risks. It’s one of those films in which the line between the law and the criminal is blurred, and the way it is presented is a part of this. Such is this blurring that the end of the film, when the police finally catch up with Pépé, is a curious mix of catharsis and tragedy.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s in some ways a stylistic forerunner to ‘Casablanca’, which makes is an important movie. The presentation of Algiers is far less balanced and more xenophobic than later, post-independence films such as ‘The Battle of Algiers’ or ‘Outside the Law’, so I would suggest a double bill with them, particularly Gillo Pontecorvo’ 1967 movie.

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