Michael G. Vann
Sacramento State University
When Pépé le Moko finally premiered in the United States of America in the spring of 1941, over four years after its release in France, Bosley Crother’s review in The New York Times praised it as “a raw-edged, realistic and utterly frank exposition of a basically evil story.” Crother, then at the start of his nearly three-decade career at the Times, continued:
Don’t get the idea, however, that “Pepe le Moko” is a risqué film. Rather it is the plain-spoken and honestly factual account of a Parisian crook’s exile in the vicious and sordid Casbah of Algiers, that notorious area of corruption and native depravity from which he is eventually drawn to his doom by love for a woman. All the filthiness and vice of the Casbah are impressively shown in the film; there is no question at all about the ruthless wickedness of Pepe, and the woman who finally lures him into the open is obviously the mistress of another man.
Julien Duvivier’s film clearly seduced this critic. This is not surprising as generations of viewers have been taken in by Jean Gabin’s iconic performance in this superbly crafted example of French film noir. From the lighting to the dialog, Pépé le Moko is a cinematic treat. What is noteworthy in this review is the way in which Crother never questions the colonial context. He clearly accepts it as the natural state of affairs that France controls Algiers and the native quarter of the city is a “notorious” and filthy den of “vice,” “corruption,” and “native depravity.” While noting the compromised morals of the two white lead characters, he accepts the film’s presentation of the Casbah at face-value. Written as Europe’s global empires are just about to unravel in spectacular fashion, Crother’s review is a text-book example of Orientalism’s cultural hegemony. Indeed, Pépé le Moko is one of the finest articulations of the ultimate colonial fantasy, the ability of a white man to master a distant land and its exotic people. Yet, even in this dream of empire, colonialism’s contradictions reveal white supremacy’s background anxieties and insecurities.
Pépé le Moko can be read in many ways. On the surface, it’s a crime film. But curiously, this is a crime film without a crime or really any detective work. In the classic opening scene, we hear a Parisian police inspector berating his subordinate colleagues as the camera pulls away from a shot of a map of Algiers to show the white men sweating. Their large office has shaded windows that reveal an exotic city drenched in powerful sunshine. The Parisian demands that the locals promptly arrest the infamous Pépé le Moko, who has evidently just pulled off a heist in Toulon. When he is told that Pépé is in the Casbah and thus unassailable, the newcomer threatens to go in there himself. His suggestion is greeted with scoffs. A local French officer patiently explains the Casbah’s geography and demography: we see a montage of documentary footage of “scènes et types,” reminiscent of colonial postcards. Described as looking like an “anthill,” with its winding streets and staircases, terraces and interior courtyards, secret rooms and hidden passageways, the terrain is impossible to penetrate or control. According to the officer, some 40,000 people from three continents live in a filthy neighborhood fit for 10,000. Somehow Pépé has made the Casbah his home. He and his gang are supported by the entire community and can move through the mysterious urban geography at will. As they consider the risks of entering the Casbah, Inspector Slimane, an Algeria agent with access to the secretive world, quietly slides into the room and then takes control of the discussion. Slimane assures the Europeans that he has a plan to lure Pépé out of the Casbah. Apart from one abortive police raid, a half-hearted shoot out, and two brief physical assaults on Arab informants, this crime film has no action scenes. It is almost entirely dialog. Most of the film is Pépé biding his time in the Casbah. Like the police, we wait for Pépé to leave the safety of the Casbah and enter the European section of Algiers where he will be vulnerable to arrest by the colonial state. Of course, it is a woman that eventually leads to Pépé’s demise.
In this register, Pépé le Moko works in the classroom as an example of French film noir. Based on a 1931 novel by Détective Ashelbé (the acronym based nom de plume of Henri La Barthe), the film and its source material speak to the importance of crime stories in French culture. From the figure of the Apache to fantasies of a socially complex urban underworld, French popular culture and literature had embraced the genre. Furthermore, Pépé, whose potential for violence wrestles with his romantic heart, is a classic French anti-hero. Prefiguring Albert Camus’ Meursault and Michel Houellebecq’s despicable protagonists, it is initially unclear if Pépé is more interested in stealing his Parisian lover’s heart or ostentatious diamond necklace. By the end of the film, we know that he has found a more profound, almost existential, reward in his lover’s arms.
Pépé le Moko offers up Jean Gabin at his best. With his working-class background and cultivated image as a tough-guy on screen and off, Gabin brings his persona into the film and helps to blur the line between criminal and proletariat. In the performance that ensured his stardom, Gabin’s Pépé resembles later performances by Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. In one unforgettable scene, Pépé seduces the Parisienne Gaby, a kept woman visiting Algiers with a group of French tourists. He stares with lust at her and her stunning diamond necklace and asks:
Pépé: What did you do before?
Gaby: Before what?
Pépé: Before the jewels.
Gaby: I wanted them.
Pre-figuring scores of cinematic bad-guys to come, Gabin’s Pépé combines a gangster’s greed with the smooth charm of a Continental ladies’ man and a refined respect for art and fine craftwork. In one exchange, he berates his vulgar minion Carlos for an act of wanton vandalism during a caper. Pépé is the criminal with the heart of gold who knows what really matters in life. When Pépé tosses aside Inès, his exotic Gypsy lover, to pursue the fair-skinned Gaby, dressed in all her Parisian finery, it is a statement about his cultivated sense of taste.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Pépé le Moko had many admirers. The film was such a success that it was remade in the United States first as Algiers in 1938 and later as Casbah in 1948. Gabin’s performance inspired comic parodies from the Warner Brothers’ Pepe le Pew to the Italian Totó le Moko (1949). An American Pepe le Pew film, For Scent-imental Reasons, even won an Academy Award in 1951; 1954’s The Cat’s Bah did not achieve such honors. American students might even recognize Gabin’s Pépé from cartoons about the famous amorous skunk, the butt of Francophobic jokes about sexually aggressive “Latin Lovers.” Like racist Disney offerings, they should provoke a strong discussion amongst students more attuned to the artifacts of rape culture.
But these are all aspects of film history that miss the true significance of Pépé le Moko. This film’s real value as a teaching tool lies in its Orientalism. Comparable to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Pépé le Moko is one of the most honest and unashamed examples of imperialism as a white male fantasy. Just as Colonel Kurtz traveled up the river and won over an army of Africans through his displays of force, charisma, and sheer will, Pépé commands the inhabitants of the Casbah. They shelter him. They serve as his eyes and ears. And if the police should dare try to seize him, they will protect him. Indeed, when the police raid the Casbah, it goes poorly for them as Pépé easily eludes them. The shots Pépé and his French gang fire during a gun battle with the police are merely perfunctory, a weak and ineffective ritual they seem compelled to enact. Pépé’s real weapon is the Casbah itself, which quickly sweeps him away into its mysterious streets and hidden chambers.
Duvivier’s Casbah is the equivalent of Conrad’s jungle, a site murderous to Europeans save the darkly heroic Pépé or Kurtz. Pépé possesses the Casbah to such a degree that he controls its emotional state. When he falls in love and sings on a terrace roof-top (normally a site reserved for sequestered Algerian women), the people of the Casbah smile, joke, and start to sing themselves. But when Pépé is distraught, the mood of the Casbah sinks as well, becoming a dark, surly, and foreboding place of menace.
The film is a fantasy of empire as site of white male power; a homosocial environment where masculinity and whiteness ensure domination. Pépé’s conquest is territorial, cultural, and sexual. This is displayed in an exchange between Gaby, an Algerian prostitute, and the serpentine Inspector Slimane.
Gaby: Where does he live? Just opposite?
Prostitute: Sometimes in here on the side of the heart, [she gestures towards her own chest] sometimes, the other. Home is wherever he finds a woman. Here, he’s the caïd’s caïd.
Slimane: The boss. His favorite is Inès, a gypsy.
Prostitute: [with a defensive flash of anger] Don’t say it so loud!
Slimane: When he’s killed, there will be 3,000 widows at his funeral.
The last line is delivered with what may be read as Slimane’s own sexual desire for Pépé. Despite Slimane’s commitment to catch Pépé, he fawns over the Frenchman with what can only be described as a mix of lust and admiration. When Pépé gruffly calls him “my little beagle,” Slimane replies with a flirtatious “my little fox.” When the wounded gangster has difficulty smoking, Slimane slides his hands into Pépé’s pockets to gently retrieve his cigarettes and lighter. The scene speaks volumes about empire as a white male fantasy. Pépé’s whiteness is so irresistible and so powerful that Algerian women and men take sensual pleasure in helping him. Conversely, as the most significant Arab character, Slimane embodies native inferiority, weakness, and duplicity. His intimate rapport with Pépé and his willingness to work with the French state despite being a conquered “native” resonates with his deviant sexuality. Despite several scenes that show him next to beautiful Parisiennes and women from the Casbah, Slimane shows no interest in them. But when Pépé enters the room or the street Slimane moves towards him with sensual grace. Lucas Gridoux’s performance as Slimane drips with sexual frustration every time he nears Gabin’s Pépé. This unrequited homoerotic lust confirms racist French stereotypes of North African men as effeminate closeted homosexuals as it reaffirms the Frenchman’s heteronormative identity.
But Pépé le Moko further reveals the inherent contradiction within the imperial fantasy, a paradox that ultimately destroys the dream. If the inherent superiority of whiteness, of European identity, makes control of the colonial world possible, is this enough for Pépé or Kurtz? Just as Kurtz longs for Europe and his betrothed, Pépé pines for Europe. This melancholy is as explicitly gendered as it is racialized. While he has all he could want in the Casbah, including the devoted and sultry Inès, he is unhappy. He feels trapped in the Casbah. In one scene he rages that it is his kingdom, but it is also his prison. Pépé is immediately smitten by Gaby’s beauty and her whiteness. In their post-coitus banter, he admits that his attraction to her lies in her Parisian-ness, and by extension her whiteness. He tells Gaby: “I really like you. You’re beautiful and being with you is like being in Paris. With you, I escape, you see? You’re a different landscape. I was pretending to be asleep earlier. I let my mind wander. You know what I heard? The Métro.” And then, in a famous exchange, they trade the names of metro stations until they meet at Place Blanche. Later, as he passionately kisses her neck and mutters that she smells goods, she quips “it’s the Métro.” Pépé’s desire and her allure are both territorialized. Despite the seductive power of the colonial good life, real white men evidently long for Europe. In a subsequent scene, an older Algerian woman Tania, played by former music-hall star Frénel, reinforces the point with a nostalgic song about Paris. As the now aged Frénel sings over a recording of her voice in her prime, the scene has a meta-narrative quality that ties a longing for Paris to melancholic reflections of lost youth.
In the end, Pépé’s longing for Paris, Gaby, and whiteness lures him out of the Casbah. Trying to stop him, the ever faithful Inès asks what she did wrong. Pépé shoves her aside and mutters: “You’re a good kid. Don’t be angry. Blame it on the Casbah. Let me go. Let me go!” He then strides out of the Casbah and into the European Quarter. He purchases a ticket on the ship that will carry Gaby and her entourage back to France. Betrayed by the wounded Inès, Pépé is arrested on the ship and marched in handcuffs back onto Algerian soil. Allowed to watch her ship leave from behind a locked gate, Pépé calls out to Gaby but the steam horn blocks his cry. The despondent Pépé pulls a knife from his suit and kills himself. American censors deemed the suicide too dark and changed the ending in a remastered release of the film in the US, and in American remakes, to a police officer shooting the handcuffed Pépé in the back.
Pépé le Moko works as a study of colonial urbanism. Arguably, the city of Algiers is the real star of the film. Indeed, the entire premise of the film rests on the Casbah as a place apart. Its architectural and demographic exoticism gives the film and its remakes a distinctive and unforgettable ambiance. Duvivier’s lighting and camera angles accentuate atmosphere of mystery and intrigue amidst Escher-like buildings. Untranslated dialog from Arab, Berber, and Sub-Saharan African extras mixes with the occasional adhan from an off-screen muezzin to underline the place’s alterity. The scenes set in the French quarter, especially when Pépé finally leaves the Casbah, contrast Western rigidity, rationality, and industry with Eastern flexibility, chaos, and squalor. When Inès follows Pépé into the French Quarter she is assaulted by the emptiness of the streets and the power of straight lines. Her confidence and strength vanish. She appears vulnerable and exposed, looking like a rodent or a crab in search of shelter in some nook or cranny. The film captures the duality of the colonial city and displays what Gwendolyn Wright termed “the politics of design.” Surprisingly, aside from some stock footage, Pépé le Moko was shot entirely on a soundstage in a Parisian suburb. The exquisite sets are all recreations. The film’s Orientalism becomes literally as well figuratively a Western construction of an imagined East.
While Duvivier gives us an Orientalist fantasy, the idea of the Casbah as unconquerable will have important echoes decades after Pépé takes his own life. Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1967 The Battle of Algiers, the acclaimed docudrama of urban guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and torture in the struggle for national liberation, shows how the Front de la Libération Nationale utilized the Casbah. Not unlike Pépé and his gang, FLN militants use the same urban geography to elude French police and paratroopers. Once again, the French colonial state fails to exercise its authority in the Casbah. The films share striking visual similarities. Pépé le Moko’s opening montage looks like it could come from Pontecrovo’s film. Merzak Allouache’s Bab El-Oued City (1994) adds further depth to discussions of the difficulties of state control in Algiers with a postcolonial twist. Set in the late 1980s, on the eve of the horrors of the Algerian Civil War (an Islamist uprising against the secular government), the film tells the story of a young baker who makes croissants all night but can’t sleep during the day because of a new loudspeaker attached to the mosque. In a fit of sleep-deprived rage, he pulls down the loudspeaker and throws it in the Mediterranean. Local Islamist youth are furious and seek revenge. In the ensuing conflict, Allouache shows the ways in which the FLN state has failed to solve Algeria’s profound economic malaise and can’t maintain effective control over Algiers. Ironically, the former anti-colonial resistance fighters who once used the city’s geography are now unable to govern the rebellious city. Allouache wrote a companion novel that has been translated into English.
Taken together, Pépé le Moko, The Battle of Algiers, and Bab El-Oued City narrate the city’s historical transitions: from repressive empire through traumatic liberation and on to troubled independence. Allouache’s postcolonial melancholy complicates Duvivier’s Orientalism and Pontecorvo’s radical chic. Given how the native is silenced in Pépé le Moko, it is only fitting that this cinematic narrative end with an authentic Algerian voice.
Julien Duvivier, Director, Pépé le Moko, 1937, France, 94 min, Paris Film, Black and White
- Bosley Crowther, “Pepe Le Moko, or the Original French Version of Algiers, at the World — New Film at Rialto,” The New York Times (March 4, 1941).
- While Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1979) is always appropriate when speaking of colonialism, the sequel, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Verso, 1993) is even more useful for teaching Pépé le Moko.
- See Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) for a discussion of the genre and the ways in which the male colonial gaze constructed images and thus knowledge of the Global South.
- Colleen Kennedy-Karpat, Rogues, Romance, and Exoticism in French Cinema of the 1930s (Madison/Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013).
- Ginette Vincendeau, Pépé le Moko (London: British Film Institute Publishing, 1998): 66-72.
- David Slavin, Colonial Cinema and Imperial France, 1919–1939: White Blind Spots, Male Fantasies, Settler Myths (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) places Pépé le Moko in a larger survey of imperial films.
- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963) contains several evocative and politically charged descriptions of Algiers and other colonial dual cities.
- Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) and Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers under French Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). And if I may shamelessly pitch my short film, “Cambodia’s Other Lost City: French Colonial Phnom Penh,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5gKeQFMVw4 , as a resource for classroom use.
- Hugh Roberts, The Battlefield Algeria, 1988-2001: Studies in a Broken Polity (London: Verso, 2003) and Benjamin Stora, Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History (Ithaca: Cornell Univesity Press, 2004) are concise primers for non-experts.
- Merzak Allouache, Bab El-Oued (Boulder: L. Rienner, 1998).