A Century of Film is an ongoing series where Devin Wilger watches one movie from each year between 1917 and today. For the year of 1937, we have Pepe le Moko.
It’s one of the more hackneyed cliches to call a film’s location another character. It’s also almost never true, and generally involves New Yorkers convinced that their city is more interesting than it actually is. It’s hard to think of any films where this is true, perhaps the Star Trek series can make the claim - helped by the location having an actual voice - but otherwise it’s very uncommon that you can say that’s at all accurate. Which isn’t to say that setting isn’t important, but calling it a character goes too far most of the time.
I will now turn around and say that the Casbah in Algiers is a main character in Pepe le Moko. Another character is Paris, which is never actually on screen. This is a film about locations, and a man’s love of locations, his hatred of locations, and his tragic love story with a location.
The film’s opening is a great example of scene setting, building up the legend of charming jewel thief Pepe le Moko by having the police argue about how they could possibly catch him, and setting up the task as impossible by building the legend of the Casbah, a labyrinth of twisted streets and residents who don’t much like police. It’s almost organic, like a beating heart of a place, which makes it alien and intimidating for the audience. At the center is Pepe, played by Jean Gabin, a dashing rogue of the old fashioned gentleman thief variety. He can charm the diamonds right off your finger.
The film opens with the police trying to catch old Pepe, but they fail, because it’s the beginning of the movie and it’d be strange to have our hero arrested almost immediately. He escapes, and in the process stumbles into Gaby (Mireille Balin), who is covered in diamonds, something that Pepe notices immediately and the editing focuses on. Yet, he doesn’t steal those diamonds, instead trying to get Gaby to come back to the Casbah again. It’s out of character, something his partners in crime notice - fellow thief Carlos (Gabriel Gabrio) spends the entire film pointing out that Pepe should probably get those diamonds already. He already has a girlfriend in Ines (Line Noro), he is relatively free, why is he so intent on this woman?
It’s because she’s not from the Casbah, something made explicit in pillow talk where he compares her to a train. Gaby is much more a symbol than a woman, especially to Pepe, who has not been arrested but is effectively a prisoner in the Casbah - even the exits of town look like walls. He hasn’t been arrested technically, but he’s living in prison, and Ines might be loyal, but Gaby is something he wants, which is to be home again. Naturally, they lived in all the same places, knew all the same things. Meanwhile, as the kept woman to a rotund wealthy man, Gaby is attracted to Pepe for the same reason, he’s an escape from her own gilded cage, diamond-lined hotel rooms with only a pudgy old guard to keep her company. As a love story between people, it makes little sense, but it’s a love story between symbols. They never really see each other, just the ideas they represent.
The other conflict in the film involves the police trying to coax him out of the Casbah, which only serves to sever his attachment to the Casbah itself. His young friend Pierrot (Gilbert Gil), depicted as a kind of surrogate son, gets his own little revenge subplot against local stooge Regis (Charpin), who sets him up. The big mover in these plans is Slimane (Lucas Gridoux), an affable fez-wearing inspector playing a long game to try to be the man to finally arrest Pepe. He takes the Pierrot plan further, knowing that while Pierrot is important, a growing hatred of the Casbah is really what’s going to drive Pepe out.
The film is filled with odd details that bring life to the town, whether that’s a man who says nothing but plays with a ball and cup constantly, or characters telling the tragic stories of how they wound up in the Casbah. It feels lived in, it feels believable, and yes, it feels like a character. The Casbah has its own alliances, its friends and enemies, and a richer inner life than some actual people in other movies. It works because there’s a lot of action going on at the edges, it gives the area life because it’s letting that life frame the core story.
The fact that the characters are places makes the story work. It makes sense of the characters’ passion, they’re not infatuated with the person, but instead of where the person represents. To Gaby, Pepe is the Casbah, and an escape from her regular life. To Pepe, Gaby is Paris, she’s home, and an escape from his own exotic prison. They like each other well enough, but they love the idea of each other more.
If you’re going to claim a place is a character, you have to do it with the same amount of intensity as Pepe le Moko did.
Next time, You Can’t Take it With You, except of course you can because this website supports mobile devices.