Pepe le Moko: the most wanted man in Algiers, a French criminal on the run from the government for robbing many banks and stealing many jewels. The city is almost his, as every man and woman is his ally, and in the streets of the Casbah, he is able to escape with ease at the clumsy detective work of the police. Women love him, men want to be him. But it all changes when he meets a wealthy gold-digger Gaby (Mireille Balin), a woman stuck in a marriage-for-money who finds the thrills she was looking for when she meets Pepe. But a criminal in love becomes a careless one, and soon it might be curtains for the most wanted man in Algiers.
This movie was directed by Julien Duvivier, one of the unsung heroes of French cinema, and it’s amazing that he could create such a perfect piece of cinematic art from the simplest of stories. In it’s core, Pepe le Moko is a simple, by-the-numbers crime thriller, the type that would become so permanent in 1940’s Hollywood cinema with the name of ‘film noir’, but as this film shows, the French invented the genre before they invented the name. The direction the film takes us borders between reality and hallucinogenic fantasy, with soft-focus photography and background effects coming in to distort reality and gives us a feeling about the character’s inner turmoil. The acting in the film is also brilliant, with Jean Gabin giving one of his greatest roles. He’s a badass for sure, but he is also a flawed hero, a romantic at heart who also lives by his own set of rules, which will also be his undoing. Anti-heroes must have been more popular in France, since it took a while for any to appear in America. Pepe has two main women in her life, one being Gaby, played by Mireille Balin, who is a very beautiful woman, but to me it was Ines, played by Line Noro, who captivated my attention. She is one of the saddest and most tragic characters in crime cinema, a woman who is deeply in love, yet suffers because of it. She knows she will never have Pepe for herself, but still follows him around and helps him, almost as if a part of her can never give hope.
The ending has to be spoken about. It’s one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking endings, beautifully photographed and acted. When Gaby looks out over the city of The Casbah before she leaves, and Gabin screams for her (to no avail), I nearly choked up. I won’t spoil what follows next, but it’s such a defeat, it’s amazing. This movie has such a power that it has been followed and imitated many times. We know that when Hollywood imitated it, they created film noir, and it was also remade twice, once as “Algiers” in 1938, and later as a badly-made musical Casbah. Stick with the classic.