Poised historically between German Expressionism and film noir but not quite in either camp, Julien Duvivier’s 1937 French gangster flick is a sumptuous wallow in melancholy machismo set against the backdrop of the Casbah, an Algerian enclave of exotically downtrodden Arabs, gypsies, black Africans and people of no known origin. A terraced labyrinth of doomy shadows and secret passages, the Casbah is a French colonial id monster where the lawlessness bred by teeming poverty can roam freely, eluding the clampdown tendencies of the powers that be. It’s all very romantic.
The Casbah’s star outlaw, a classy guy among all the lowlife, is Pépé Le Moko (Jean Gabin). Pépé is French, as is his crew, but through a combination of charisma and ruthlessness he has gained the support of the quarter’s motley inhabitants. Thus, he has free run of the Casbah, much to the chagrin of the authorities, both locally and in Paris. Pépé’s most ardent pursuer is Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux). He’s an Algerian who knows better than to try to collar Pépé while he’s still in the Casbah, but who accompanies him as he walks through the quarter, chatting amiably with him about his eventual arrest. Although Gabin is obviously the star here, Gridoux gives a much more intriguing performance; his Slimane is a crafty character who hides behind a facade of deference, much like an early-day Columbo, and he quietly insinuates himself into Pépé’s circle while remaining as inscrutable as a salamander sunning on a rock.
Pépé yearns to return to Paris, to escape from the claustrophobic Casbah; when he falls in love with a rich man’s mistress, a tourist who has come to the cramped ghetto for some local color, Slimane sees his chance for setting a fatal trap. Without giving too much away, the ending makes no sense at all as the dictates of romantic fatalism triumph over simple character consistency. The confident, if mildly moody (and decidedly misogynistic) Pépé just wouldn’t do what he does here. Still, it’s the shadowy suggestiveness that makes the film a minor classic, a seedy tone poem about foolish love and honorable death.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].