Pépé Le Moko: The French John Dillinger or Robin Hood?

Infamous gangster Pépé le Moko (Jean Gabin) thrives in the shadowy underbelly of Casbah. Pépé is a master of his trade: thievery. His infectious personality has women wanting to be with him and men wanting to be him. The people of Casbah love and respect him. Surrounded and protected by beautiful women and his notorious gang, Pépé seems invincible. However, the police have one last card up the sleeve—a Parisian playgirl, Gaby, who seduces and lures Pépé to risk everything and leave the confines of Casbah forever.

It is in these confines where Director Julien Duvivier examines the concept of freedom through Pépé. For Duvivier, the backdrop of Casbah drives the story as much as the characters do. The film’s opening overhead shot of the city shows labyrinths and mazes to illustrate how elusive, dizzying, and caged the city looks. Through the use of dark lighting and tight shots, Duvivier meticulously employs each frame like a pressure cooker to suffocate the film’s protagonist. For instance, there are many recurring gritty shots of sweat beads dripping off faces. Duvivier’s strategic deployment of shadows literally resembles prison bars. As the story moves forward, Pépé feels the noose of Casbah tightening. In this pressure cooker of Casbah, his decision-making abilities become erratic. Pépé ultimately realizes that freedom comes at a high price.

Pépé Le Moko shares many of the same traits as Hollywood’s film noir genre. In fact, the film was later remade in Hollywood as the drama, Algiers. In fact, many critics credit this film for laying the groundwork for film noir. For instance, both Pépé Le Moko and film noir features depict characters whose cynical and sexual motives drive their actions. Additionally, these films frame struggles through stylized lens. However, what separates this 1937 classic from the Hollywood genre is Duvivier’s emphasis on realism, which comes out in criminal mastermind Pépé’s (Jean Gabin) disillusionment with freedom and in the protagonist’s less glamorous supporting cast.

Pépé’s disillusionment with freedom is physically, mentally, and spiritually symbolic and ultimately keeps this film grounded in French Poetic Realism. Duvivier’s realism relies heavily on the concept of disappointment. Ultimately, Pépé Le Moko champions French Poetic Realism’s tone of nostalgia and bitterness.

Additionally, French Poetic Realism often highlights the working class or downtrodden criminals. This ragtag group feels more like Robin Hood’s Merry Men or Billy the Kid’s gang than John Dillinger’s sophisticated mob of mercenaries. It is in this depiction of the common people that Duvivier truly defines “realism” and earned his ranking as one of the “Big Five” of classic French cinema with Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, Jacques Feyder, and Marcel Carne.

By Peter Suanlarm

Pepe le Moko screens this Wednesday
August 10th, 5:00PM
Philadelphia City Institute Library / 1905 Locust Street / Philadelphia, PA
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