Monday, November 23, 2009

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: Pepe le Moko (1937)

Pepe le Moko is #566 on  
My Quest to watch The 1000 Greatest Films 

Screened 11/09/09 on DVD from GreenCine

Ranked #519 on TSPDT

Though it has been remade several times (both loosely and straightforwardly so) and was highly influential on Michael Curtiz when he made his Academy Award winning classic Casablanca just a few years later, and (of course) was referenced by Jean Luc Godard (via Jean Paul Belmondo) in Pierrot le fou, once the Nouvelle Vague and Cahiers du Cinema brought such forgotten films and filmmakers back into vogue, possibly Pepe le Moko's most enduring (and widest spread) legacy can be seen in the namesake rapscallious and somewhat odoriferous classic Looney Tunes Character of Pepe le Pew. 

That particular extracurricular cartoonish anomaly aside, Julian Duvivier's pre-noir noirish film about a French thief and all about roue, running around the Casbah, evading the police and the informants but not the ladies, though perhaps seen as a bit racist in hindsight when it comes to the portrayal of the Casbah and its residents, is a classic of poetic realism (which was after all a stylistic precursor to film noir) that was in itself a precursor to a whole slice of film history.  This may seem a bit on the overdramatic side but nonetheless, in this critic's eyes, it is a true statement.  And a fellow critic may very well agree with me.  In his essay for the Criterion release of Pepe le Moke, Michael Atkinson wrote thus: "Without its iconic precedent there would have been no Humphrey Bogart, no John Garfield, no Robert Mitchum, no Randolph Scott, no Jean-Paul Belmondo (or Breathless or Pierrot le fou), no Jean-Pierre Melville or Alain Delon, no Steve McQueen, no Chinatown, no Bruce Willis, no movie-star heritage of weathered cool, vulnerable nihilism, bruised masculinity-as-cultural syndrome." 

I couldn't have said it better myself.  I was actually trying to verbalize this very point when I came across the Atkinson essay and he did it for me.  Pepe le Moko is, at the very least, one of the catalysts for all the aforementioned film history that was to follow.  Along with films such as early Hollywood Fritz Lang and von Sternberg, Duvivier's exotic thriller is what made noir possible, and in turn everything which has spawned from noir's own dark underbelly.  In fact, the novel on which Pepe is based was in turn inspired by Howard Hawks' Scarface.  Perhaps film history is all one viscous circle - much like the winding alleyways of the Casbah itself.  How's that for a segue?  

This spectacular spiraling camera of Duvivier is like a whirling dervish breaking free of the poetic realism it finds itself mired - for good or for bad - inside of, yet it is Pepe himself, the wonderful and quite prolific actor Jean Gabin, that makes this visually attractive film blossom into the full fledged sexy beast that it is.  To quote Michael Atkinson again (from the same Criterion written essay as above) in describing Gabin, he says he is "almost Garbo-like in his ability to anchor our attention without moving a muscle."  It is Gabin's stoic realism, twinged with an almost anti-sentimental sentimentalism (that makes sense, right?) that is the heart, the core, of Duvivier's film.  Incidentally, Gabin would go on to roles in Grand Illusion, Port of Shadows, Daybreak and Moontide but his career would slow down with the advent of WWII, where he would work with the Resistance. The rest, I suppose, is history.

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