To fully submerge into the antiquated, almost aboriginal mirage of Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le moko (1937), you cannot overlook its position as a cog in the dream-works of film history. Seasoning post-WWI fatalism with what would become film noir’s sense of criminal doom, the movie stands as the pivotal cave-painting template upon which an entire cultural identity has been formed. With its casually comfortable exoticism, abstruse locale, mature (as opposed to Romeo and Juliet-teenaged) romantic tragedy, and, most of all, its oddly, beautifully sympathetic anti-hero––whose bottomless cynicism and experience suddenly shallow before an impossible and even unlikely love––Pépé established a narrative paradigm that persists today, on and off the screen.
Without its iconic precedent there would have been no Humphrey Bogart, no John Garfield, no Robert Mitchum, no Randolph Scott, no Jean-Paul Belmondo (or Breathless or Pierrot le fou), no Jean-Pierre Melville or Alain Delon, no Steve McQueen, no Chinatown, no Bruce Willis, no movie-star heritage of weathered cool, vulnerable nihilism, bruised masculinity-as-cultural syndrome. (André Bazin, writing in 1957, demarcates the difference between Pépé le moko’s Jean Gabin and late Bogart by maintaining that “the fate of Gabin is precisely to be duped by life. But Bogart is man defined by fate,” a distinction made less by character, I think, than by the twenty-year progress toward a grimmer sensibility that began in Pépé.) Most vitally, there would have been no film noir––not as we know it today. Contrary to the accepted history, the second World War didn’t create the context for noir: many pivotal genre staples were in production and even released before America entered the war, and too many of its texts originated in the ’20s and ’30s. (In fact, if you recombine Pépé’s DNA with 1937’s other compatriot films—Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once and William Wyler’s Dead End––you’d get Tourneur’s Out of the Past.) Truly, the form evolved into something darker and more misanthropic in the postwar years, but just as some of the basic elements derive from WWI’s blistering fallout (German Expressionism, organized crime glamour, an international sense of wasteland rootlessness subtly expressed in The Last Flight, Shanghai Express, and Arsenal), some predate even that cataclysm. The spirit of Pépé le moko modernizes (and demythologizes, to a degree) Romantic sex-death, Baudelairean self-immolation and existentialist despair. Indeed, the inexorable whorl of disaster in the face of ill-advised l’amour tracks right back to Aeschylus and Shakespeare.
Thus, Pépé le moko isn’t merely to be savored for its own pleasures, but for way it resonates with the pop-culture past and future. Before it, gangsters were inviolate and interesting only in their viciousness, and their timely deaths were moral object lessons. Hardened men jeopardized both in the outside world and in their own guarded psyches were merely law-abiding frontier loners or courageous working stiffs, like western heroes or Clark Gable in Red Dust and China Seas (both of which contribute to Pépé’s basic structure). The edges of the rational commonwealth were clear-cut––not muddy, as they are in the Casbah––and the role of the self-defined man easy to accept. Certainly, before Pépé the true anti-hero––the rational man whose moral code conflicts with society, and whose destiny is marked by an ongoing argument with the world––is difficult to find in movies.
Given its emblematic quality, it’s no surprise that Duvivier’s movie has been remade twice in Hollywood––as Algiers in 1938, with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, and as Casbah in 1948 with Tony Martin, Märta Torén, and songs; another version is seemingly overdue. Interestingly, the source novel––by “Détective Ashelbé,” a nom de plume for Henri La Barthe, a Parisian cop once stationed in Algiers—was reportedly inspired by Howard Hawks’ Scarface. The interface between the films is restricted to the criminal milieu; otherwise, they are diametrically opposed in tone and thrust. Pépé le Moko is a romance, above all else—between Jean Gabin’s titular jewel thief/murderer/outlaw/ghetto hero and slumming-society-tramp Gaby (Mireille Balin), as well as between our civilized place as moviegoers and the cluttered, rat-maze exoticism of the Casbah as Duvivier films it, a filthy, fairy-tale castle-town of warrens, secret passages, hidden doorways, tower verandas and underground activity. An efficient journeyman who bounced from France to America (in the early ’40s) to Algiers (ironically enough, for the 1944 Gabin feature The Imposter) to England and back to France again, Duvivier brought several fascinating projects adroitly to port, but none glow with the years as finely as Pépé. He has been rarely praised or pantheonized, but his decisive visual expressiveness cannot be ignored: the evocative mise-en-scène in the several tracking shots moving backward down the Casbah alley-steps in front of Pépé, the consummate local son; the fun-loving slow-motion-via-editing of a rooftop gun battle with police; the rapturous dance sequence between Gaby and Pépé, panning around their perfectly synchronized tango steps. Duvivier’s movie is a masterful suggestion of exotic particularity, augmented by no small amount of on-location shooting.
But Pépé le Moko’s primary fuel is Gabin himself, the epitome of movie star vibrancy. (Balin’s cavern-voiced fashion queen is relatively tame, but Line Noro, as Pépé’s discarded Algerian girl-toy Inès, is a magnificently wild-eyed tigress.) Gabin was almost Garbo-like in his ability to anchor our attention without moving a muscle; in this, as critic David Thomson says, he is “a knowing listener more than a speaker, anticipatory rather than active.” His gaze exudes an intelligent warmth, an alert strength, and all manner of brutal history, all without “acting”; the achievement of an individual’s photographable presence rather than his mimicry is the most sublime legacy of movie performance. With three Renoirs, two Carnés, and five Duviviers on his resumé in one decade, Gabin might’ve been the most powerful and effective actor anywhere in the ’30s, and with Pépé he had his key persona manifested. He had no idea how genuine the scarred heart of that character was until, after shooting with Duvivier in Algiers, Gabin returned to France during the Occupation to join the Free French. Whatever his experiences, after the war Gabin slowed his career down to occasional roles and supporting bits, having himself seen the world at its most sorrowful.
Michael Atkinson is a film critic for the Village Voice, and the author of Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Editions).