Title: Pepe Le Moko
Director: Julien Duvivier
Runtime: 94 minutes
A Little History
The 1930s did not shy away from the fact that it was a big lover of the crime genre. With gangster films coming into the limelight as the go-to cinematic experience, it was a big sensation throughout the USA. With the Hays Code in full effect at this time, it even caused them to rethink how they made their movies, creating new techniques, applying specialized editing and playing around stylistically with their lighting. This would eventually be a pre-cursor to the film noir genre that was just around the corner. However, things were a little different across the sea in a country only known as France. Around this time French filmmakers were working on their own style of film known as Poetic Realism which would also be hugely influential on the film noir genre, and be a predecessor to the French new wave movement that would hit in the 40s. It was so called Poetic Realism due to its use of stylized representations of reality and studio-bound sets as opposed to the socio-realism of the documentary style. Julien Duvivier was one of the masters of this genre and considered highly important when it came to French cinema. His film Pepe Le Moko set the standard of what was to come. A film, despite falling under the radar, that left a major impact, garnering two American remakes (Algiers, 1938, and Casbah, 1948) and influencing Graham Greene to write The Third Man. The reason you probably never heard of this film is that the director of the remake tried his best to destroy every copy of Pepe Le Moko he could get his hands on to seem like his was the true version. Thankfully he didn’t…
…Because this movie is a masterclass in filmmaking. I would even dare say a masterpiece of its time and genre. Pepe le Moko is a crime lord who is both protected and trapped within the confines of the Casbah he lives in. Staying there the police are unable to touch him but he yearns for life back in Paris. Despite being beloved by the low-end member of the Casbah and having a wonderful life there, he becomes heavily nostalgic for his life in the city and things take a turn when he encounters a city girl and falls in love with her. His fate is now tempted and Julien Duvivier tells this story in a beautifully shot and perfectly paced film. The cinematography in this film is outstanding, with every shot meticulously framed and every camera movement motivated. It flowed naturally and the editing was enough to keep the viewer engaged in what was happening. The movie is filled with long scenes that are just back and forth conversations, but thanks to Julien Duvivier’s direction and the wonderful editing, it never gets boring. Technically, this is a solid film but all the credit doesn’t just go to the crew but to the actors as well who give fantastic performances throughout. Every actor brings life and depth to their characters and says their lines with such ease and purpose. Jean Gabin does a great job playing Pepe as a charismatic, sympathetic and charming character. The other characters all love him and it’s understandable why because you as the viewer fall in love with him as well. By the end of the film, you truly feel his pain and his yearning for more. His motivations are clear and you find yourself rooting for him even if it’s not the smartest decision.
Julien Duvivier also does a great job of bringing life to the world that’s presented. The larger than life Casbah becomes a character in and of itself. With exotic looking buildings, paved and winding streets and a cast of extras that are just as distinct as the main characters themselves. At the beginning of the film, an officer explains the life in the Casbah and it is shown through a montage of shots over his voice. This simple montage is incredibly effective at not only setting up the tone of the film but presenting the setting to the viewer in an engaging and fun way. It easily gets you hooked right from the beginning. There is much more I can say about it, but I am keeping this spoiler free as I’d want anyone interested in watching it to have that experience.
This is a hard yes. Unless you’re the type who doesn’t like watching foreign films or old black and white films, it is a must-see for anyone who is a film buff (especially if you love crime films). This was a pleasant surprise, a hidden gem I did not expect to enjoy as much as I did. The fact that this movie is as obscure as it seems to me is shocking and I’m surprised it doesn’t even get mentioned at all. If you can, find a version that has subtitles. The Itunes rental does NOT include subtitles and unless you know French (which luckily for me I do) it might be difficult to follow along. Not an easy movie to find, but if you do give it a watch!