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Rock the Casbah 

Julien Duvivier's 1937 classic Pepe Le Moko influenced everything from the American version (virtually shot-for-shot) it spawned just one year later (Algiers) to Casablanca, film noir, the French New Wave and even -- you guessed it -- that amorous cartoon skunk, Pepe le Pew.

Still feeling like boycotting the French?

It would be bad timing, because the New Orleans Film Festival's screening of Pepe Le Moko this Thursday is a rare opportunity to see this witty yet existentialist tale of love and fatalism on the big screen -- where Duvivier captures not only the beauty of star Jean Gabin but of the infamous labyrinth that was the Casbah.

The Casbah might as well be a map of Pepe le Moko's heart; he's trapped inside it, a suave criminal who is both the master and prisoner of his domain. If he leaves the Casbah, the cops will surely, finally capture and imprison him. The only thing that could lure him out is a beautiful woman, and she arrives in the form of Mireille Balin -- who, despite looking like she's in perpetual pre-sneeze mode, sparkles in Duvivier's lens as much as her diamonds do.

But in the Casbah, life is even more complicated than that, for there are friends, lovers and enemies, and sometimes it's uncertain who's what. Pepe's got a lover (a bedraggled but exotic Line Noro), who doesn't mind getting slapped around but does mind being deserted. Do the math.

Gabin is the one to watch here; as Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson so astutely notes in The Criterion Collection's recent DVD release, it's hard to watch this film now and not see the thread of angst that weaves through John Garfield and especially Humphrey Bogart. His Rick in Casablanca is an unsubtle carbon copy of Gabin's Pepe, both sentimentalists hiding behind their thin veneer of cynicism. But Gabin's face is fuller, broader, more rugged; it's as if his lips are thin solely to make way for more of his ruddy features that even still have a wisp of the feminine about them. It took a Jean Gabin to crack the ice of Marlene Dietrich, and Pepe Le Moko provides one clue as to how and why. Even she couldn't resist the charm of the Casbah.

click to enlarge Pepe Le Moko, which screens Thursday at the Prytania, is an influential classic that captured the mystery of the labyrinthine Casbah and the charm of star Jean Gabin (left).
  • Pepe Le Moko, which screens Thursday at the Prytania, is an influential classic that captured the mystery of the labyrinthine Casbah and the charm of star Jean Gabin (left).
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