Pépé le Moko (1937)
Directed by Julien Duvivier
This romantic-poetic proto-noir is about Paris—though not a single scene is either set or shot there. Instead, it’s set in Paris’s funhouse-mirror reflection, the Casbah of Algiers, whose landscape looks like German Expressionism, or urban design à la M.C. Escher, improvised and seemingly unmappable (it’s not even on Google Street View!); it’s a 3-D labyrinth of winding staircases, a town of tunnels and trapdoors with a parallel neighborhood above, on the interconnected rooftops. It evokes the medieval Paris that Baron Haussmann razed, and thus it’s the perfect home for the sort that that wholesale destruction displaced—the criminal element.
Pépé le Moko is the nom de crime of the main character, played by Jean Gabin, a master jewel thief hiding out in the maze that is the Casbah—he’s a gangster gone native, living among those also at odds with the French government, though for very different reasons. Pépé is a Parigot in exile—he’s from Pigalle, the traditionally working-class quartier in the north—because he’s on the lam. In Algiers he meets another expat, a bejeweled lady, Gaby (Mireille Balin), and together they commiserate in their longing for home (like anyone else who’s ever been to the city and then left). “Being with you is like being in Paris,” Pépé tells her, adding, romantically, “You remind me of the Métro.” Swoon!
In one scene, the two name-drop their favorite places in Paris, each citing spots on opposite ends of the proverbial tracks. Luc Sante uses this dialogue as the opening of his recent social history, The Other Paris, to introduce its thesis—there’s “Paris,” and there’s its flipside. Most big cities have an uneasy relationship between these poles; in Pépé, director Duvivier suggests that Paris’s greatness depends on its ability to welcome both, to be big and varied enough not merely to be a home to everyone but to belong to anyone, regardless of class or rap sheet. Duvivier, working from Henri La Barthe’s novel, makes the representatives of these ostensibly opposing Parises fall in love.
But that love is unstable. In the final scene, Pépé is finally captured, trying to board a ship headed to Paris with Gaby onboard. Because their affair is symbolic, the tragedy’s not that they don’t get away together, but that they don’t get away together to Paris, that Pépé’s left behind in a city that’s Not-Paris, a bootleg Paris. Without a Pépé within its walls, Paris loses an essential component of its character, a Parisness as essential as Gaby’s. Together they make Paris whole; apart, they are less than their sum. It’s a prescient gentrification allegory.
The homesick Parisphilia reaches its apex in one Capra-esque scene, in which an aged woman, once a singer in the cafés—played by the great chanteuse Fréhel, one of the best proto Piafs—sings along to one of her scratchy records, “Où Est-Il Donc?,” about the bygone Paris she once adored. Tears fill her eyes; her voice cracks. Paris is the Don Giovanni of cities; we’re all just names in Leporello’s book. Henry Stewart (July 21, 7:20pm; July 22, 5:10pm; July 31, 6:50pm at Film’s “Les Durs: 3 French Tough Guys”)