The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 171-173
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Pépé le moko. Janus Film/Rialto Pictures Release, 2002
As one of the most famous French poetic realist films of its time, the story of Duvivier's Pépé le moko (1937) is probably familiar by now: the eternally charismatic protagonist and how his love for the wrong woman ultimately leads to his demise. While Pépé le moko has been famous for its influence on the policier genre and the rise of the antihero in the incarnation of Jean Gabin, the recent restoration and rerelease of this classic provides the opportunity to be reminded of its place in film and of its subsequent influence on both French and world cinema.
In the 1930s, the poetic realist movement flourished in France. The classic elements of this tradition included a tragic, working-class antihero, a doomed love affair, and a highly stylized poetic realistic look created through the mise-en-scène. These elements recall the literary works to which key filmmakers such as Jacques Prévert, Jean Renoir, Marcel Pagnol, Jean Vigo, and Julien Duvivier himself looked for inspiration. These filmmakers examine the psychological human state and reflect a national consciousness through the poetic realist style. In addition to directors Renoir, Prévert, and Duvivier, actor Jean Gabin is placed firmly in this tradition, with his recurring character of the proletariat worker becoming the symbol of the French national ideology reflected in this cycle of films.
Adapted from Hal Alshelbé's roman policier of the same name, Pépé le moko is both a fatalistic and sentimental tale of a doomed hero, Pépé, trapped in the Casbah in Algiers due to his criminal activity. Gabin plays Pépé as an antihero who cannot forget his Parisian proletarian roots. When he meets Gaby (Mireille Balin), another man's mistress, Pépé believes he has found his true love—a belief that facilitates his demise. While Pépé pursues Gaby, he is being pursued by the local Algerian police, headed by Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux). Further complicating matters, Pépé is in an unhappy relationship with Inès (Line Noro), who eventually betrays him when he decides to follow Gaby out of the Casbah—his only haven from the law and Inspector Slimane.
Pépé le moko's influence has been widespread in cinematic and broader cultural terms (including giving birth in 1945 to the Warner Bros. cartoon character Pepe le Pew). It has been taken seriously and lampooned, from the high Hollywood Casablanca (1942) to the Italian spoof Totò le Moko (1949). However, critical appraisal of the classic Pépé le moko has been hindered (certainly in the United States) in recent decades by the fact that when it has been shown, it has usually been in poor quality 16mm prints or bad video copies with titles that are sometimes almost unreadable. Pépé le moko was due for its return to theaters, presented in a splendor it has not possessed in sixty years.
Julien Duvivier was considered one of the great directors of the classical era of French filmmaking. Revered in the 1930s, he later lost favor when critics compared him with Jean Renoir. Duvivier made over fifty films in his directing career, from 1919 to 1967, almost half of them during the silent era. His earliest films were melodramas, but his range extended into most genres by the end of his career. Unlike his fellow director Renoir, Duvivier did not discriminate when it came to subject matter, which may have contributed to critical assessment of his work as uneven. This is not to say that Duvivier's work lacked unifying focus: he favored [End Page 171] "men's stories" and working with strong actors. The combination of Jean Gabin and Pépé le moko worked toward Duvivier's strengths as a director. While the film was a critical and financial success when it came out in France in January 1937, its release in the United States was held back until well after Hollywood remade it as Algiers (1938). Duvivier's original was withheld from...