Directed by the prolific Julien Duvivier, Pépé le Moko is based on a pulp crime novel written by Détective Ashelbé, a pseudonym for Henri La Barthe. It tells the story of a charismatic and glamorous master thief Pépé le Moko, played by Jean Gabin in one of his iconic roles, who has fled from his native Paris after a robbery and has been hiding out in the Casbah in French colonial Algiers. Pépé appears to live a charmed life inside the mysterious and exotic Casbah. He is the boss of a loyal crew, maintains an amicable relationship with the Algerian police inspector Slimane, and is loved and revered by the Casbah’s diverse inhabitants who go out of their way to support and protect him. He is romantically involved with the gypsy Inès, and lives with her, although he has a reputation as a ladies’ man, with Slimane snidely observing that there will be ‘3000 women at his funeral’. However, the protection of the Casbah is also a prison for Pépé, and a fateful meeting with the Parisian tourist Gaby stirs romantic feelings and also reactivates his desire for Paris, which leads to tragic outcomes.
Pépé le Moko is a fascinating and challenging film that is riddled with contradictions. On the one hand it has been celebrated as a ‘classic’ French film of the 1930s, a crystal-like culmination of the developing formal style of post-sound French cinema. On the other hand it has been criticised as a film replete with colonialist and racist ideas and values. So what is it about this film that mesmerically draws us into its world, enchants us, and invites us to care about its characters, but also confronts us with troubling questions about its politics?
There are several obvious reasons why Pépé Le Moko has been elevated to the status of a cinema ‘classic’. In the first instance, it is a frequently cited example of poetic realism, a film movement that emerged in France around the mid-1930s. Poetic realism was seen to combine documentary realism and a poetic stylisation, and featured stories about working-class characters and difficult loves. It has also been described as an early example of film noir, in part because of its story of criminal masterminds, fatal women and the expressive use of light and shadows. In addition to being recognised as an early example of these film movements, it has also been recognised for its accomplished formalism. In her great BFI book on the film, Ginette Vincendeau says that Pépé le Moko does in fact offer ‘an anthology of camera angles and movements, editing, lighting and music then in use in the best of the French cinema, as well as of Duvivier’s virtuosity’. 1 Further testament to Duvivier’s virtuosity comes from the great filmmaker Jean Renoir himself, who said that ‘If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of [Julien] Duvivier above the entrance …. This great technician, this rigorist, was a poet.’ 2
As well as these formal qualities there is the compelling performance of the actor Jean Gabin, one of the preeminent actors in French cinema during the 1930s. Gabin starred in some of the most celebrated films that were made in this period, including Duvivier’s La belle équipe (1936), Renoir’s La grande lllusion (1937) and La béte humaine (1938), and Carne’s Le quai des Brumes (1938) and Le jour se léve (1939). David Thomson describes the Gabin of the late 1930s as ‘the perfect expression of a working-class figure hating his squalid environment – in factory or lodgings – but drawn towards a dangerously innocent woman and consequent fatal violence as the only means to dignity’. 3 Thomson’s description of the Gabin character is certainly true of Pépé who tries very hard to transcend his working-class background, but still finds himself destined to replay a fatally violent ending.
While it can successfully be argued that Pépé le Moko is a pivotal film in film history because of its stylishness and the presence and performance of Jean Gabin, the film’s setting in, and its fascination with, the Casbah inevitably raise questions about colonialism and the fraught relationship between France and Algiers. Vincendeau tells us that in 1931 in Paris a key cultural event that took place was the Exposition Coloniale. She describes this as an exhibition that ‘reconstructed habitats, and displayed folkloric dances, artefacts and merchandise, from North and West Africa, Indochina, and other far-flung colonies’. 4 While Vincendeau acknowledges that Pépé le Moko does not ‘depict or advocate territorial conquest’ 5 she does say that it is a film that is ‘steeped in colonialist culture and ideology’. 6 Much of this arguably arises from the way the setting and the culture and people of Algiers are viewed as exotic and ‘other’.
This depiction of the Casbah as a place of mystery and ‘difference’ is evident from the opening sequence of the film which takes place in an Algerian police station in the European quarter. The Algerian police are sitting around, fanning themselves in the oppressive heat, and they are trying to explain to the visiting Parisian police inspector why they haven’t been able to catch Pépé le Moko for two long years. The reason that is given is the place, the Casbah. One of the policemen goes to a map on the wall and this image of the map dissolves into a documentary-style montage sequence of the Casbah, through which we are given an overview of the place. As a camera pans across rooftops, followed by closer views of labyrinthine alleyways, closed doors, disappearing stairwells and streets with strange names, the policeman’s narration describes ‘dark winding streets like so many pitfalls’, ‘slimy porticos’ and a ‘population of 40,000 people where there is room only for 10,000’. We are shown a melting pot of races, nations, religions and types, including women of ‘all shapes and sizes’. This documentary-style survey of the Casbah functions as a visual explanation for why the police have been unable to capture Pépé but it also addresses us as tourists who might be fascinated by this teeming, mysterious place.
Arriving late to this meeting about Pépé le Moko is Inspector Slimane. Slimane is the chameleon who has the special ability to straddle the two worlds, being that of a police inspector who has a job to do, and also someone who walks the streets of the Casbah and has friendly conversations with Pépé and his crew. His relationship with Pépé is reminiscent of the relationship between Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in another great crime story Heat (Mann, 1995) with their mutually respectful but inevitably conflicted relationship. And just as Vincent tells Neil, in the famous coffee shop meeting, that he will eventually ‘take him down’, so Slimane sets out to trap and capture Pépé, and finds a way of doing this by tempting him with the Parisian tourist Gaby.
The attraction between Gaby and Pépé is at the centre of the film and the motivation for Pépé’s final fateful decision. There is a key scene that takes place inside the Ali Baba café where their flirtation is played out in terms of the two places – distant Paris and the ever-present Algerian Casbah. This scene further underlines the extent to which the film is both enchanting but also, as Vincendeau tells us ‘steeped in colonialist culture and ideology’. Slimane has brought Gaby to Pépé – delivered her, as if she is a lure, in some kind of game of chess. The scene begins with Pépé’s girlfriend Inès outside the café, looking through the window at Pépé talking to a group of people that includes Gaby and the other couple who have travelled to Algiers with her, Mlle Berthier and Gravère. Pépé reaches out to hold Gaby’s hand and outside Inès watches, a cross-like shadow covering her face, reminiscent of a film noir victim as she sees her lover fall for another woman. Gravère flippantly says that he always imagines he is somewhere else, rather than the place he is in, giving voice to his touristic inattentiveness. Mlle Berthier notices the phonograph and says that they should put some music on. She picks up a record and says, with insensitive indifference, ‘Cheka Tema – it must be native music’, playing it for a short time before she chooses a more familiar jazz-styled song, which is part of Vincent Sotto’s soundtrack. So, in this brief exchange, Gravère and Mlle Berthier show contempt for the local culture, and this is the immediate context for the flirtatious exchange between Gaby and Pépé in which they also express a longing to be somewhere else.
Gaby is luminous, wearing a white satin top that literally gleams, framed by diamond earrings and bracelets. She is like a shining beacon – literally – and her whiteness is quite a contrast to the darkness of Inès. Pépé is intoxicated, both by her appearance and possibly by the value of her diamonds. She asks Pépé if he knows Paris and they recall different places in some kind of nostalgic game of one-upmanship, reanimating the memories of being in Paris: Rue Saint-Martin, Gare du Nord, The Opera, The Boulevards, Barbès la Chapelle, Rue Montmartre, Boulevard de Rochechouart, Rue Fontaine. And just as if they were in a screwball comedy they both say ‘Place Blanche’ at the same time and look at each other. The connection between the two of them is confirmed by their shared memories of Place Blanche. But this nostalgic evocation does more than suggest that their attraction is a matter of destiny. Paris and Gaby come to stand for everything good and desirable in Pépé’s mind and heart; and Inès and the Casbah becomes a trap, a prison, an oppressive place to escape from. This also appears to be a view that the film shares. The story makes it clear that Gaby is a tourist and Pépé is an escaped criminal, and that they are both enjoying the colour, the energy, the diverse inhabitants, the comforts and the protection of the Casbah. However, in spite of the evidence that their presence in this place is exploitative and temporary, their doomed affair is still enchanting, and as they dance in this café, it is difficult not to be charmed by the way that they occupy this contradictory space.
Pépé le Moko proved to be an influential film and evidence of this can be found in the fact that it has been remade many times. In 1938 it was remade as Algiers, starring Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer. It was also remade in 1948 as Casbah, a musical starring Tony Martin, Märta Torén, Yvonne de Carlo and Peter Lorre. It is said to have been a key influence on Casablanca (1943), particularly in the way that an impossible romance is played out against a colonial outpost. In 1951 there was even an Italian version titled Totò le Moko which was a playful parody. And perhaps the most playful homage of all is to be found in Chuck Jones’ creation of the skunk Pepe le Pew.7 In the episode The Cats Bah (1954) Pepe le Pew has a domicile next to Pépé le Moko and emanates a charm that we have come to expect from no one else but Pépé le Moko himself.
1. Ginette Vincendeau, Pépé le Moko, London, BFI, 1998, p. 11.
2. Jean Renoir cited in catalogue – Museum of Modern Art, Julien Duvivier retrospective, May 1–28, 2009.
3. David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 5th ed., New York, Knopf Doubleday, 2010, p. 35.
4. G. Vincendeau, Pépé le Moko, p. 7.
5. G. Vincendeau, Pépé le Moko, p. 55.
6. G. Vincendeau, Pépé le Moko, p. 56.
7. There were 16 Pepe Le Pew cartoons in total, starting with Odor-able Kitty (1945) and ending with Louvre Come Back to Me (1962). Chuck Jones, the Warner Bros. creative animator responsible for Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and the Roader Runner, directed 14 of the Pepe Le Pew cartoons.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: Paris Film. Director: Julien Duvivier. Scenario: Henri La Barthe and Julien Duvivier. Cinematographers: Jules Kruger and Marc Fossard. Music: Vincent Scotto and Mohamed Ygerbuchen. Cast: Jean Gabin (Pépé Le Moko), Lucas Gridoux (Inspector Slimane), Mireille Balin (Gaby), Line Noro (Inès), Fernand Charpin (Regis).]
Henry A. Garrity, ‘Narrative Space in Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko’, The French Review, Vol. 65, No. 4, March 1992, pp. 623–8.
Peter Limbrick, ‘(De)Colonising the Casbah: Masculinity and the Colonialist Imaginary in Pepe le Moko’, New Literatures Review 30, winter 1995, pp. 17–29.
Janice Morgan, ‘In the Labyrinth: Masculine Subjectivity, Expatriation, and Colonialism in Pépé le Moko’, The French Review, Vol. 67, No. 4, March 1994, pp. 637–47.
Martin O’Shaughnessy, ‘Pépé le Moko or the impossibility of being French in the 1930s’, French Cultural Studies, Vol. 7, No. 21, October 1996, p. 247.
Ginette Vincendeau, Pépé le Moko, London, BFI, 1998.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.