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France 1937
Directed by
Julien Duvivier
94 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Pepe Le Moko

Watching Pépé Le Moko it is hard to shake off memories of Casablanca (1942). Indeed, Duvivier’s film was remade by Hollywood the next year as Casbah, with Anatole Litvak directing and Charles Boyer in the Gabin role.  It is only a couple of degrees of separation from there to the Michael Curtiz classic.

Pépé Le Moko is the story of the eponymous criminal (Jean Gabin) hiding out in the casbah section of Algiers. Although ruling the roost in this seedy underworld, as much as he is protected by it he is very much its prisoner as he is unable to leave it and engage with the world at large, let alone get to his home town of Paris. When he meets the beautiful Gaby (Mireille Balin) his self-styled nemesis, Sliman (Lucas Gridoux), an Algiers police inspectors sees a way of entrapping him.

Thematically much of Casablanca is already here – the elegant, super-cool hero, the colourful ne’er-do-wells who hang around him, the cat-and-mouse game with the police, the ill-fated romance, and so on but Duvivier’s appraoch, which is quite typical of French “poetic realist” films of the time as also seen in the works of Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo, is very different.  There is a much more poetically heightened, with a Romanticist emphasis on Pépé’s doomed love as opposed to the kind of supra-personal nobility which informs Curtiz’s film and with a much more artistically distinctive visual style than the seamlessly transparent approach of Hollywood studio film-making..

Perhaps it is this anachronistic comparison that makes the film seem rather dated in its mannerisms, its action scenes in particular appearing maladroit (although the scene in which the informer Regis is killed by Pépé and his gang would not be out of place in a Tarantino film). Its importance as an influence on Hollywood notwithstanding Pépé Le Moko is more impressive in parts than as a whole but there enough of those parts to make this worth checking out.

DVD Extras: Audio commentary by Anna Dzenis, and Rick Thompson of La Trobe University; Original Theatrical Trailer.

Available from: Madman




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