A Day of Culture – Part III

Ended my day Friday with two films at the Film Center–part of the French noir series.

Jean Duvivier: Pepe Le Moko (1937)
Pepe Le Moko
1937, France, Julien Duvivier

This great French gangster picture, set in the crowded streets and winding alleys of the Casbah, stars Jean Gabin as master criminal Pepe Le Moko. Pepe’s network spreads throughout the city; informants, prostitutes and fellow thieves help him to keep one step ahead of the law. After a few years of this cat-and-mouse game, Pepe longs to return to Paris, though he knows he runs the risk of capture should he leave his safe haven in Algiers.

Enter Gabrielle, a beautiful French tourist dripping in expensive jewelry, and before he knows it, Pepe has fallen for her so hard that he’s forgotten all about cashing in on her diamond bracelets. Complications abound and propel the film to its conclusion. Pepe has a devoted gypsy girlfriend who recognizes the threat Gaby is to herself as well as to Pepe’s safety. Cops and criminals share information and a mutual respect for one anther; one of Pepe’s frequent visitors is Slimane, an inspector who bides his time with Pepe, waiting for just the right moment to arrest him. Gaby is travelling with a wealthy older man, whom she sneaks out on to meet secretly with Pepe.

Jean Gabin is fantastic as the charming, brutal and passionate Pepe. It’s easy to see why he’s so often compared to Spencer Tracy. I was really struck by how much he resembled a huskier Kenneth Branagh. With lighting and locations, Pepe Le Moko conveys a sense of place that Casablanca never comes close to. The dialog is intelligent and free of clunky clichés; I thought the scenes between Gaby and Pepe especially good. The film has a pantheon of great character actors to rival any Hollywood film of the Golden Era. Particularly memorable are two of Pepe’s gang, one of whom is constantly playing with a ball attached by a string to a stick and the other with a permanent grin on his face, no matter what he’s witnessing. [****]

Deadlier Than the Male
1956, France, Julien Duvivier

Nearly two decades later, director and star reteamed in this film noir, set in a successful restaurant in the market district. Jean Gabin stars as Andre Chatelin, a middle-aged chef whose establishment is patronized by the wealthy and influential of Paris. A young woman arrives at his door to give him the news that his ex-wife has died and that she is the woman’s daughter. Though not his daughter, Andre takes pity on the homeless and friendless woman and gives her a place to stay. He kindly introduces her to a struggling medical student who’s a frequent diner and close friend of Andre’s. It soon becomes clear that Catherine has other, darker intentions. Her only interest in the student is to get him out of the way as she puts her plan of revenge into action.

Gabin is excellent in this film as well. It’s always fun to see a series of films starring the same actor, especially over a period of time, because it allows you to see the actor’s range and appreciate the differences and similarities of roles. Germaine Kerjean was particularly good as Andre’s mother, a severe woman who rightly has a wrong feeling about the girl. [***]

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