In the performance which made him a cinematic icon, Jean Gabin plays Pepe le Moko, a notorious gangster hiding out from the police and his rivals in the Casbah of Algiers. In the labyrinth of the Casbah he is safe; until a Parisian playgirl tempts him out into the open...
- Pépé le Moko review by Count Otto Black
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You rated this film: 3
Some classic films stand the test of time better than others. This is one of those that unfortunately doesn't. The Casbah of Algiers is an odd location for a film noir, being all whitewash and blazing sunlight, and from the viewpoint of today's increasingly multicultural society, it doesn't seem anything like as exotic as it must have to French audiences in 1937. In fact, the movie's main plot-hook, that enforced exile in an "alien" country completely unlike France is literally a fate worse than death for a true Frenchman, nowadays comes across as slightly racist, as does the one-dimensional cliché fiery gypsy girl whose blazing animal passions are no substitute for the love of a civilized French woman.
Of course, you have to make allowances when you're watching a movie almost 80 years old. But the film has other flaws too, notably that very little actually happens. Pépé mopes, romances his new love, and mopes some more. The central performances, especially Jean Gabin's, are excellent, but there's still way too much moping. A proper film noir needs a fair bit of action, and this is sadly lacking. The shootout near the beginning is anticlimactic, staged so poorly that it's downright desultory, and has no consequences at all; even worse, the only gunfight that really matters takes place entirely offscreen. And there's that scene where Pépé and his gang plan a robbery which sounds as though it'll be rather exciting, but never actually carry it out, or even mention it ever again. Apart from one genuinely noir-ish scene featuring a couple of quite nasty deaths, it's completely lacking in both violent action and true darkness, and the protagonist's eventual fate makes him seem not so much tragic as just a bit of a wuss.
On the plus side, there's the acting, which is mostly very good, and some extremely interesting characterisation, notably the utterly unsympathetic slimy little creep of a policeman who, though technically in the right because he's trying to arrest a gang of armed robbers who are undoubtedly guilty, uses the dirtiest tactics imaginable, and by cynically exploiting everything that's still good about these bad men, ultimately comes across as far worse than they are. But Saturnin Fabre is no Orson Welles, and this is no "Touch Of Evil". And in terms of essentially good characters who do bad things and are undone by their human weakness and basic decency, this isn't a patch on "Rififi". By the way, given his amazing performance in "L'Age d'Or", it's a shame they couldn't think of anything better to do with Surrealist icon Gaston Modot than have him lurk on the sidelines looking slightly retarded. As classics go, a very minor one.