Movie review, 'Pepe le Moko'

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Now beautifully restored after a half-century of neglect, the 1937 French movie "Pepe le Moko" is a timeless romantic thriller that steeps us in one of those great artificial movie worlds that become more overpowering than reality itself.

It's a film with atmosphere so thick and rich you can almost smell it. It's full of winding, fetid streets that steam with spices and intrigue, packed cabarets latticed with smoke and shadows. Directed and co-written by Julien Duvivier, and starring Jean Gabin as Pepe, this splendid entertainment is set in '30s Algiers. But despite extensive location photography, it's not a real city we see here but a noir metropolis, as fantastic as anything in the Arabian Nights.

The movie's hero, Pepe, is a Parisian exile who rules the roost in the mazelike crime-ridden native quarters which local police don't dare to invade. This is the fabled "Casbah," and for half a century since "Pepe le Moko" and its famous (but inferior) Hollywood remake "Algiers" appeared, "Come weez me to de Casbah," has been the standard clich?omantic come-on for all ersatz French lovers. (Ironically, no one ever utters this line in "Pepe," "Algiers" or the weird 1948 musical remake "Casbah.")

"Pepe le Moko" shows why the Casbah became a pop legend, why Gabin was the major Continental star actor of the '30s, and why "Casablanca" and other major noir classics are deeply in its debt. Duvivier's film distills an archetypal movie myth. It shows us the suave, uncatchable, charismatic crime czar, trapped in his exotic expatriate underworld, but gradually lured away -- in this film, by the wily inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) and the bejeweled and beautiful socialite visitor, Gaby (Mireille Balin), who pierces Pepe's heart because she reminds him of Paris.

Pepe was based by novelist/co-scenarist writer Henri La Barthe (a.k.a. "Detective Ashelbe") on a real-life criminal. But Gabin made him immortal. Urbane, tender-hearted and deadly, Pepe is one of the great foreign movie characters -- a sleepy-eyed jewel thief of irresistible charm and fatal romanticism -- and he's surrounded by an equally memorable gallery of crooks, cops and kibitzers.

His gang includes Gaston Modot as the dexterous, game-playing Jimmy; Gabriel Gabrio as the majestic old fence Carlos; Gilbert-Gil as reckless young protege Pierrot; and Line Noro as Ines, Pepe's passionate Algerian mistress. Mostly French themselves, they've created a little Paris in the midst of the teeming Casbah where they can withstand any assaults by the police. But it is the real Paris for which Pepe vainly yearns and to which he is drawn by the machinations of the duplicitous informers Regis (Fernand Charpin) and "The Ayrab" (Renoir mainstay Marcel Dalio), and by the fez-topped Slimane -- who is even more dangerous because he is Pepe's friend.

Regis and Slimane use Pepe's love for Pierrot and his desire for Gaby to entice him away from the Casbah, and two of the movie's best-remembered scenes show Pepe and Gaby dreamily reciting Parisian streets and landmarks as they gaze dreamily into each other's eyes -- and the fat, sweaty Regis meeting his doom at the hands of Pepe's gang while a pianola plays counterpoint to his screams. Nothing, however, is more unforgettable than the film's annihilating last scene, with Pepe rushing toward the ship that will carry away Gaby, and Paris, forever. Julien Duvivier ("Carnet de Bal," "Poil de Carotte") was an underrated director at his best in the '30s, when he was a peer of Renoir, Carne, Jacques Feyder and the other "poetic realists." An urbane cynic-romantic, he was at his absolute best here. And "Pepe Le Moko" is such a delicious entertainment, it barely needs any exegesis. Almost everybody gets instantly caught up in "Pepe's" rich images and characters.

"Pepe Le Moko," despite its pop origins becomes, like its imitator "Casablanca," a powerful statement on cultural exile and doomed romance. But for more than a half-century, "Pepe" has been available here only in duped or faded prints that lose the full quality of Duvivier's images, Jacques Krauss's tangy sets and Jules Kruger's lush photography. That's why movie buffs should rush to this elegant, shining restoration -- so they can come again (or for the first time) to Pepe's world: the Casbah where he lives and the Paris of his dreams.

4 stars
"Pepe le Moko"
Directed by Julien Duvivier; written by Duvivier, "Detective Ashelbe" (Henri La Barthe), Jacques Constant, based on the novel by Ashelbe; dialogue by Henri Jeanson; photographed by Jules Kruger; edited by Marguerite Beauge; sets designed by Jacques Krauss; music by Vincent Scotto, Mohammed Yguerbouchen; produced by Robert & Raymond Hakim. French, subtitled. A Rialto Pictures release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; 773-871-6604. Running time: 1:33. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned: violence, drug use and strong suggestions of sensuality).
Pepe Le Moko -- Jean Gabin
Gaby -- Mireille Balin
Inspector Slimane -- Lucas Gridoux
Carlos -- Gabriel Gabrio
Regis -- Fernand Charpin
Ines -- Line Noro
The "Ayrab" -- Marcel Dalio
Jimmy -- Gaston Modot
Pierrot -- Gilbert Gil Tania -- Frehel

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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