Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pépé le Moko (1937)

By Eric Jessen 7/2/09

The Algerian squeal to the French police called him the “prince of plunder.” But really, he's soft at heart. He cares for his friend Pierrot and treats him like a son. He is capable of dropping his gangster ways for the lovely rich French woman who is visiting Algeria. The only problem is, he's trapped in the slums of the Algiers by the police. But don't worry, have no fear, he'll find a way out. He'll find a way to get the girl. Remember, it's Jean Gabin. It's the movies. Oh crap, oh no! I started writing this before I saw the end. This is a different kind of movie. Pepe le Moko (Jean Gabin) is not so lucky a movie gangster with a heart. This ending is different, perfect. Throw aside the predictable movie endings. He doesn't necessarily need to end up with the pretty girl for it to be romantic. This is new, it's exotic, at least for 1937. Who cares if they're French actors with bad fake tans to look like Algerians. The ending is infinitely more romantic then a predictable Hollywood ending. It is romantic in a Shakespearian way. It's straight out of Romeo and Juliet. She thinks he's dead. He thinks she's gone. He goes down easy and classy to police. Kind of dull (I'm thinking), but suddenly he gets one last look at the boat she was supposed to be departing on. There she is, but he's in shackles, so he kills himself because he can't be with her. He suffered tragically for his life of crime. Pepe le Moko is a great example of the poetic realism movement of the late 1930's.
I love this movie. How can you not? It's got all my favorite actors from the Jean Renoir movies. Gaston Modot as a gangster (not that he does anything), the wonderful Marcel Dalio as an Algerian “mail man”, and best of all the dynamic screen presence, Jean Gabin. There are also a few standout supporting role performances, such as Fernand Charpin as a squeal, who's death scene is one of the high points of the movie.
This is not Renoir's movie (I wish it were) but it is very well directed. Julien Duvivier's camera slithers at low angles along the grounds of the slums of the Algiers (some on set, some on location). The music is spicy and foreign (some of that raising snakes, flute stuff).
Above all this is a gangster movie, and the gangster's savior or cause of his demise is always the woman he falls in love with. What makes this gangster movie interesting and unique is its lead. Jean Gabin gives the head gangster complexity and vulnerability. He's unpredictable. In Pepe Le Moko the only things that makes him a successful gangster are his large posse and his ability to shake the police in the Algiers. He's not very intimidating and appears to be a coward. He almost faints anytime he comes near the city and out of the slums where the police can catch him. In the end he becomes what no tough gangster wants to be - a hopeless romantic, sacrificing himself for love. But remember this movie is different and that's why I love it.

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