Pepe's cage of shadows
By Michael Roberts
An influential and seminal film, from an extremely fertile period in French cinema now bracketed under the catch all umbrella of ‘Poetic Realism’. Pepe Le Moko may be the greatest example of the gangster-noir variant of Poetic Realism, which is to say I’ve just invented that sub-set and granted the first award, I remain to be proven wrong. It’s influence was great, try to imagine a world without Bogart’s Rick Blaine, or the uber-romantic cartoon skunk Pepe Le Phew! would not life be a lesser thing? :) Julien Duvivier worked shadows like Josef Von Sternberg, creating a Casbah of the mind, studio bound but ultimately unrestrained by any limitations. This is existential noir, where cages made of shadow are just as containing as any steel bars.
The central relationship of the Casablanca-esque rogue villain and ironic cop type. Like Rick and Louie, Pepe (Jean Gabin) and the police inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) are soul mates on opposite sides of the law divide. Respect and a certain kind of male love is apparent in a symbiotic link between the two couples. In Casablanca it ends with bonhomie and cameraderie as the lines dissolve…. there is no such light in the dark alleys of the Casbah and it’s dockside conclusion. Pepe is the lord of all he surveys and the dominant animal in the labrynthine shadowland of the Algierian alleys, but the arrival of Parisian dilettente Gaby, (Mireille Balin) keen to do some slumming for the excitement,sees her attracted to bad boy Pepe and they connect over reminiscences of the Paris Pepe left behind. Pepe begins to long for the streets of his youth, overwhelmed by a nostalgia and yearning that he does not fully understand, thereby sowing the seeds of his own downfall. Familiar gangster tropes of betrayal and duplicity, scorned women and scarred hearts populate Pepe’s world, and soon he yearns for a different kind of freedom, one that is shared fully with a missing part of him, found in a woman he can truly be himself with, no more games, no more ‘Pepe Le Moko’.
Gabin was on a golden streak, one iconic role after another, and this is up there with the best. He is a caged animal, but even the king of the cage wearies of it golden bars in time. This is the one fact that Slimane knows will bring Pepe’s demise, all he needs is a powerful enough lure, and it arrives, of course, in the shape of a woman. Ilsa was the impossible love for Rick and here too Gaby is the idealised temptress, a window to another world for Pepe, or maybe another cage? There is a sadness in Slimane, who knows that the only destiny that can await Pepe has been hastened upon him by his political masters. The regret hangs like a pall over the machinations that ensue, but somehow we feel too that only death can be the ultimate escape for Pepe, and like Slimane, we don’t really want to see it.
Duvivier made a genre defining film with this one, and given the dearth of availability of his 1930’s work, he would seem ripe for rediscovery. Hollywood knew quality when it saw it, and made a fair fist of a remake with Algiers. I suspect (or like to think) Bogart saw Pepe in the 5 years between it’s release and making his own enduring classic, and hopefully would have poured Gabin a drink had they ever met.
Here’s looking at you Jean. A timeless gem.