The more I watch and study film noir, the deeper and more interesting the rabbit trail gets. There are so many loops and turns and connections to history, culture, politics, and artforms. I have been exploring the World War II context, the origins in German Expressionism, the gender politics, race issues, and most recently the connections to HUAC and the larger Communist witch hunt. With a recent yielding of moolah to the allure of Filmstruck and its offer of access to classic and arthouse films plus the Criterion collection, I have been delving into French poetic realism.
I’ve very much enjoyed everything I’ve seen to date, including Jean Renoir’s La Grand Illusion (1937) and La Chienne (1931) and Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève (1939) — links take you to my posts about each film. And now I’ve finally gotten to see Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937), poetic realism’s take on the ill-fated gangster story that relies on much that will come to define noir.
Pépé (Jean Gabin) is the rogue supreme, forced to live in the shadowy and grotesque melange of the Casbah. The Casbah truly a character of its own in the film, much like the city in classic noir. The film even gives it a voiceover introduction, more than Pépé or any other character earns. Here Pépé is trapped, for the police are stymied by the elaborate mosaic of the alleys and hideaways along with the equally impassable network of spies and protectors. The master criminal cannot commit new crimes, nor can he escape the police.
Because Pépé is a romantic anti-hero more than a hard-boiled gangster and it is through his eyes that we see life and crime, Pépé le Moko looks forward toward noir rather than back to the Hollywood gangster picture. This is enhanced by the presence of one inspector, Slimane (Lucas Gridoux), who is allowed into Pépé’s world and even to comment on his future. Slimane describes Pépé this way:
Le Moko? The prince of the plunders! Fifteen convictions, 33 daylight robberies, two bank hold-ups and how about burglaries? We haven’t enough fingers in this room on which to count them all! How could he not be admired?
At the same time, however, native detective Slimane declares his absolute knowledge that Pépé will fall, and soon. Pépé’s response to Slimane’s claim that he will without fail capture and arrest the criminal (“It is written!”) is to declare the inspector “funny” and to accuse him of “Delusions of grandeur.” He advises Pépé to consult a fortune teller to know how soon this will occur.
This reference leads to the film’s women, who occupy positions as symbolic as the “prince of plunders” and the dogged if admiring Algerian inspector. Women both save and ruin Pépé over the course of the narrative. Inès (Line Noro) is a “gypsy” and Pépé’s lover, his “favorite” of the women of the Casbah. She may not be a fortune teller, but she loves and looks out for Pépé whenever danger is near. He mistreats her — fulfilling the stereotype of the cold-hearted gangster — but he also apologizes for it and sees her for the kind and generous “kid” she is.
Ironically, Inès represents the nomad who stays put with and for her man. By contrast, wealthy socialite Gaby (Mireille Balin) symbolizes freedom. Specifically, Gaby reminds Pépé of Paris, where he hopes to flee from the Casbah. Her beauty is that of privilege and wealth earned through seduction. Pépé has no desire to steal her diamond bracelets, only to possess her.
Gaby is mesmerized by the danger of Pépé and the Casbah, just as she mesmerizes him with her Parisian charm. Although she might be called a femme fatale, Pépé’s own desires are what lead him to his doom.
I’ll leave the actual ending to your own viewing of the film, but believe me when I say this picture — from character and plot to mise-en-scene — is most certainly a noir precursor, like many an example of poetic realism.
These films were banned during the French Occupation, and it fascinates me to know that when they were once again screened, it was together with 1940s Hollywood crime thrillers that would come to be called film noir. What a remarkable post-war experience for the French.