Monday, October 23, 2017

#610: Pépé le moko

Directed by: JEAN DUVIVIER
1937, TSPDT Rank #990

Pépé le moko is probably one of the most influential films of the 1930s. In Hollywood, it inspired a shot-by-shot remake called Algiers, which starred Charles Boyer in the iconic role played here by Jean Gabin, as well as Hedy Lamarr in a star-making role. Years later, Warner Bros. adapted the story yet again into the screenplay that became Casablanca - one of the most famous romantic films of all time. But Pépé le moko's influence extends far beyond these obvious remakes, as it helped to create the distinctive style which would later be adapted by Hollywood and eventually become known as film noir. The ominous use of light and shadow, the colorful cast of low-lifes, the cynical slang language, and the world-weary criminal who finds his downfall in a romance with an unattainable woman - all of these elements would become familiar features of many a film noir, but they were first crystallized here.

Of course, this is also the film that secured Jean Gabin's status as the foremost icon of prewar French cinema. As Pépé, he is both stylish and brutish, witty and cruel, usually unsentimental but hopelessly nostalgic for earlier days in the streets of Paris. His performance is both simple and evocative - a template for many similar characters in countless later films. It's also a timeless portrayal of French ideals of masculinity and romance, which ironically became essential American values in the films noirs of the 1940s and '50s. So while Pépé le moko may not be the artistic equal of other French films of the era by the likes of Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Marcel Carné, it may be more culturally significant than any of those films, as the film which simultaneously defines both prewar French cinema and the roots of Hollywood film noir.

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