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Pépé Le Moko’ is a stepping stone for entire genre

Marty Schroeder | Monday, March 6, 2006

“Pépé le Moko,” the famed 1937 film, was recently screened as part of the DPAC’s “Film Noir Weekend.” The film provides a prime example of French cinema’s Poetic Realism movement which occurred in the 1930s. “Pépé le Moko” is also a marvelous paradigm of the inspiration behind the “Film Noir” genre and is considered by many to be one the genre’s most influential films.

Jean Gabin stars as the suave gangster Pépé le Moko. The plot revolves around the French police force in Algiers as they attempt to capture Pépé le Moko, who has evaded them by hiding out in the winding and narrow alleys of Algiers’s Casbah. Informants, loyal friends and women all surround Pépé as he plays his game of cat and mouse with the police. Most of the film is dominated by the love affair between Pépé and the beautiful Gaby Gould played by Mireille Balin. She is a Parisian who has traveled to Algiers. While there, she and her friends go into the Casbah wherein she encounters Pépé. They fall in love immediately and the conflict revolves around the jealousy that Pépé’s current lover, Inès, has for Gould and Pépé’s attempts to see Gould outside of the Casbah. The only catch is the police have the Casbah surrounded and he will surely be captured upon leaving and entering the other sections of the city.

This film is not considered Film Noir per se, but it does contain many of the elements that would come to provide the icons by which the Noir genre is now known. The characters give off an air of nostalgia for past days and bitterness for their current situations. There is one scene in particular when Pépé discusses Paris with Gould. Gabin infuses his character with the proper hopeless nostalgia for his former home, which leads perfectly into a bitterness for being confined in the Casbah. Pépé has money, women and friends in the Casbah but Paris still calls his name. This interplay between nostalgia and bitterness would provide a basis for the nihilistic feelings that would come to typify the characters of Film Noir.

The aesthetic of the film is also of note. The cinematography shines through in certain instances of heightened emotion providing an artistic impact to the emotional impact coming through the actors. The final shots of the film are of particular note as the camera placement and movement correspond to and heighten the emotional impact of the conclusion. This artistic flair influenced many Italian Neo-Realism filmmakers and, perhaps better-known movement, the French New Wave. Directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, French New Wave directors, pointed to this artistic flair as an influence on their filmmaking. The French New Wave then would go on to influence the revered American directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

“Pépé le Moko” contains many of the elements that we have come to recognize in our own cinema. It’s influence on Film Noir can be seen through the latter’s use of people who are outside the law and on the edge of society and the aesthetic nature would go on to influence the golden age of post World War II film directors. If in search of a highly entertaining and artistically excellent film, one could do much worse than watch “Pépé le Moko.” Gangsters, love, crime and police all converge in the Casbah of Algiers. This mixture is beautifully put together and even more pleasure can be derived today in noting the influence this film and others like it have had on the constant development of cinema.