PEPE LE MOKO (Julien Duvivier, 1936)

“A son of the devil always has friends.”

Superior in almost every way to the Hollywood remake starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr (Algiers, John Cromwell, 1938; the remake’s photography, by James Wong Howe, is moodier, more evocative), Pépé le Moko is perhaps Julien Duvivier’s finest film. Showcasing but not overwhelmed by Jean Gabin’s complex, riveting performance in the title role of a Parisian thief hiding out in the Arab quarter of Algiers, it anticipates the fatefulness of poetic realism, the movement in French cinema expressing Europe’s sense of doom amidst Hitler’s tyrannical appetite beyond Germany’s borders. It is not so good as Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève (1939), or even for that matter Carné’s Quai des brûmes (1938), both of which (even more memorably) also star Gabin, but it is an engrossing, suspenseful entertainment sparked by a number of compelling moments. In one, when Pépé meets Gaby, the wealthy woman love for whom will lure him out of the Casbah to the sea and to his death, the editing atomizes closeups of Gaby’s body parts that are adorned by expensive jewelry—but included is also a closeup of Gaby’s mouth, whose only attraction is the woman herself. Another fine moment: with a revenge killing imminent, all sound is erased during a card game before it blasts back in with a player piano.
     The latter is occasioned by young Pierrot’s death, the result of conniving and treachery, which finds Pépé stroking the hair of the corpse and belatedly becoming the older brother that Pierrot’s pride wouldn’t allow in life. Here as elsewhere, Pépé is vulnerable by being out of sync with time and the times. His spirit transcends the sordid environment that poverty and desperation have imposed on him as well as others.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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