“Pépé le Moko” (1937): Failure to Escape

Pépé le Moko stars Jean Gabin, who is, according to all of the people who worked with him over the years, le Parisien le plus grand. In the film he plays the title character, Pépé le Moko, a criminal beloved by those with whom he cohabitates, the residents of Algiers’ Casbah. The Casbah is the perfect home for this figure because there he disappears within the labyrinthine enfolding of the ghetto. He seems beloved not out of fear but out of a genuine endearment of those around him, although, as far as the film shows, not for any philanthropic regard for his neighbors.

The film begins with French police who have arrived in Algiers to finally catch Pépé, where their French-Algerian counterparts have been unsuccessful. The latter explain, in the opening scenes, the particular difficulty that the Casbah poses for the police. In particular, the French are critical of Inspector Slimane, who sees Pépé every day, but has failed to catch him.

The reason for this is not because Slimane is a idiot of sorts, a picaresque character designed to entertain us with slapstick misdeeds, but because in order to catch Pépé you must bring him out of the Casbah. Pépé’s men would not hesitate to use their force to overpower Slimane, were he to approach them in such a way. And if Slimane brought his men, Pépé would not be able to be found.

Still from the 1936 film Pépé le Moko starring Jean Gabin

But here we have one of the crucial concepts: in the Casbah, Pépé cannot be captured. In the Casbah he is free, not merely because of the architechtural obstacles posed by the neighborhood, but because of the network of individuals devoted to Pépé, assisting his own evasion. The only reason, we might glean, is because of their common hatred of the French police. The Casbah is the ghetto. This is one site that French colonialism has failed to penetrate. This might lead us to conclude that Pépé is a man of these people of the Casbah.

And yet this is not true. Pépé is, like the actor who plays him, a Parisien. Thus, although he has many loves in the Casbah, and Slimane famously says that at his funeral there would be hundreds of widows, the one woman who truly captures his heart is Gaby, a girl from Paris visiting with her husband and their friends. Gaby’s relationship with her husband is a practical one and not one of love, as far as we can tell. Her husband is much older than her, a bald plump fellow and theirs is a relationship of vanity. Gaby meets Pépé during a visit to the Casbah, where she and her friends have stopped, and his eye catches hers …

The dramatic tension of the film appears with the continual crossings of the Parisienne Gaby into the Casbah, from which Pépé cannot descend. She can never live in the Casbah. Even Pépé’s gang is confused why he hasn’t snatched the expensive jewelry she wears. At a crucial scene, when Gaby is leaving her husband, she puts the jewelry down on a bed and says she is through and she is leaving. Then she says, am I crazy? and returns for the jewelry, which she will take with her.

Pépé longs to leave the Casbah with Gaby, but he cannot.

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