on 20 October 2012
Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937, 94')
Directed by Julien Duvivier-Produced by Robert and Raymond Hakim. Written by Jacques Constant (adaptation), Henri Jeanson (dialogue), Julien Duvivier and Henri La Barthe (screen-play). Starring Jean Gabin, Gabriel Gabrio, Saturnin Fabre, Fernand Charpin, Lucas Gridoux. Music by Vincent Scotto, Mohamed Ygerbuchen. Cinematography Marc Fossard, Jules Kruger. Editing by Marguerite Beaugé. Distributed by Arthur Mayer & Joseph Burstyn (USA, 1941), The Criterion Collection (Region 1 DVD, 2004).
I must have first seen Pépé le Moko in a film club in Europe circa 1960 (and many times since), and already then gave it five out of five stars. The reason that I am writing about it now is that in one of my recent dvd purchases of Femmes fatales from amazon, I found, a #2 of six movies with the following text: "Algiers by John Cromwell (1938, 98') - Cast: Hedy Lamarr, Chales Boyer, Gene Lockhart. An alluring tourist (Lamarr) steals the heart of an infamous master thief (Boyer), but puts his life at risk when his mistress betrays him (this seems a deliberate change from the original-RC) to the French authorities. Nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Actor and Best Cinematography". IMDb gives the following Ratings: 6.9/10 from 1,162 users - Reviews: 36 user | 7 critic. Producer is American "independent" Walter Wanger, a genuine "hotshot" of whom more will need to be said below.
Algiers, shot by shot, turned out to be a copy of Pépé le Moko in such a blatant way that I did not trust my eyes: Not only shots were copied, but angles and lighting - no wonder about the quality, Algiers was the work of China-born camaraman James Wong Howe, of whom Wikipedia says "James Wong Howe, ASC (Chinese 黃宗霑; pinyin: Huáng Zōngzhān) (1899-1976) was a Chinese American cinematographer who worked on over 130 films. A master at the use of shadow, he was one of the first to use deep-focus cinematography, photography in which both foreground and distant planes remain in focus. During the 1930s and 1940s he was one of the most sought after cinematographers in Hollywood. He was nominated for ten Academy Awards for cinematography, winning twice. Howe was judged to be one of history's ten most influential cinematographers in a survey of the members of the International Cinematographers Guild."
Regularly working for the likes of Samuel Fuller, Howard Hawks and David O Selznick, Howe was also the cinematographer in Drums of Fate (1923), The Thin Man (1934) - a comedy-mystery film directed by W S Van Dyke - based on the same name-novel by Dashiell Hammett, Fantasia (1940) - (uncredited) for the Philadelphia Orchestra sequences, Fritz Lang's famous Hangmen Also Die! (1943) - on a text by German émigré author Bertolt Brecht, Daniel Mann's The Rose Tattoo (1955) - after a Tennessee Williams
play and screenplay, starring Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster, Alexander Mackendrick's film noir Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and the Kim Novak/Jimmy Stewart vehicle Bell, Book and Candle (1958).
So much about James Howe because his imitation is perfect - while other elements are only proxies: Identical dress did not turn the inimitable Charles Boyer into the equally inimitable Gabin, it worked more with the other males, while the Algiers-Females are more Hollywood-trimmed down to bras and fashion. Algiers is altogether too neat and clean, no messy corners or beggars, and while Hedy Lamarr is admittedly an attractive woman and good actress, she fits the bill less than her less known parallel in Pépé. But lets her two of amazon's Top Reviewers, who also bringup further aspects:
>>>Pepe le Moko is one of those films that seems to actually improve each time I see it, and not just because it set the mold for every exotic doomed Hollywood romance from Casablanca on. Jean Gabin is at his best here, capturing both the legend and the vulnerability of his criminal king of the Casbah, `ruling' in hell but longing for the heaven beyond its gates. The atmosphere is wonderful, the script sublime, Duvivier's direction superb, and the film so filled with memor-able moments that you can forgive the blandness of the leading lady (to be fair, the attraction is meant to be more the lure of the old life and places back home that Pepe once knew) and the over the top performance of Lucas Gridoux, overdoing the Uriah Heap routine as his nemesis Slimaine, potentially the film's most interesting character. <<< Trevor Willsmer (London) wrote on 6 May 2007 under the title "Without Pepe le Moko (his rating is 4 out five stars), Casablanca would still just be a name on a map".
>>>Between "Pepe" and "Casablanca," there was, of course, a third film, the 1938 Hollywood remake of Algiers . It starred the very beautiful Hedy Lamarr as the adventuress, in which role she does quite well, her beauty sure helped; and Charles Boyer in the Pepe role. Boyer was, of course, a very handsome Frenchman, but he quite lacked the sheer working class presence that Gabin brought to the role, and cannot, actually, carry the picture as Gabin did. Walter Wanger produced the American copy; it is said that he tried to destroy all copies of the French original, which, luckily for us he was not able to do. To compare the two versions of the story is certainly instructive. It is said that actors were hired for the American copy based upon their resemblance to the French originators of the roles, and that Wanger had a Movieola running at all times in the studio as he was filming, making virtually scene for scene copies of the original. You can, in fact, see that the backgrounds are frequently identical, the lighting just the same, the placement of the actors just the same, and the actors strongly resemble those in "Pepe."<<< Stephanie DePue (Carolina Beach) wrote on 1 July 2010 - her rating is five out of five stars - "A Magnetic Gabin IS Pepe le Moko".
The two new aspects are (1) to what length Hollywood went when it came to secure a project: Casablanca barely emerged from the onslaught, and (2) that Walter (Feucht-) Wanger, himself a jew, should have known that burning films (in secret) is about as effective as burning books in public - the Nazi operation (1933) was still recent!
195uk - Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937, 94') - The Original, beware of imitations - 20/10/2012