Julien Duvivier isn’t a name that rings a familiar bell in my head, but there’s an assumption that he was at least slightly well regarded, enough that he is credited on the poster up there by only his last name. But if any cinephiles out there who haven’t seen this already were to watch this film, I’d wager it wouldn’t be for Duvivier; it would be for Jean Gabin, whose name I do recall as one of the premier French stars of his era. It was this film, Pepe le Moko, which made him not only a bigger star in his native France, but brought him worldwide recognition and acclaim as well. Watching this, however, while I thought that Gabin could easily carry a great role and film, given the right material, I never really felt that this was such a film. It was exotic, compared to other French films of its time, but when you strip it down to the nuts and bolts, there’s not a whole lot about this one that’s wholly remarkable.
The titular Pepe is a wanted criminal and known gangster, who is openly hiding out in the Casbah region of the city of Algiers. He lives in relative freedom, since the casbah is an intertwining jumbled string of a city, a maze-like labyrinth that he knows quite well, and which the police hunting him do not; as long as he remains within the casbah, he is basically a free man, if only slightly so. It’s when he meets a Parisian tourist with whom he falls in love that he finally realizes how trapped he really is, and he begins clawing at the windows of his existence, trying to find a way out. The story is good enough, and the characters are especially memorable, particularly the sly and snake-like Inspector Slimane, but what is there to really take the time and watch this film for? Honestly, not a whole lot, though there are some features that stand out. Duvivier and his cinematographer seem especially fond of odd-focused shots, where the edges of the frame are slightly distorted and out of focus, almost as if the camera were shooting through the bottom of an empty glass. This apparently is a highlight of the French cinematic movement known as “poetic realism”, which opts for a gritty but realistic setting and plotline and then chooses odd camera shots and tricks to highlight the fiction of the story. An interesting decision, if a superficial one. This film is also particularly notable for being a blatant precursor to what would later become the film noir genre; all the staples are here, albeit in French form, so any fans of noir will definitely want to check this out as a good example of before noir was noir.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little underwhelmed by this one. I guess I was expecting something on par with the best of Renoir or Vigo, or Marcel Carne, and this doesn’t exactly meet those expectations. To the film’s credit, though, it was a very nice French gangster piece, with a story that kept me invested and an eclectic cast of characters. I just went into it expecting more than it ended up giving me; that’s all. If I’d recommend this to anyone, it would be under the stipulation not to expect too much of it, lest you end up slightly aloof at the end like I was. Watch it for Gabin and as a precursor to film noir, and you might get more out of it that way.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10