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Pépé le Moko: The Criterion Collection

Say his name and women swoon! Criminals admire him — police fear him! He is — Pépé le Moko! Played by smooth, cool, gorgeous Jean Gabin, the title character of Julien Duvivier's seminal 1937 crime drama is an iconic antihero — perhaps, if film historians aren't talking through their hats, the first real antihero of modern cinema. Pépé is a jewel thief, a murderer, and a notorious ladies' man; the police can't capture him in the labyrinthine Casbah, with its secret passageways, winding streets and connected rooftops. Weaselly Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) knows that he can't touch Pépé while he remains in the Casbah — to the locals, Pépé is practically royalty, and surrounded at all times by his gang. One night, during a stand-off with the local cops, Pépé meets a beautiful society woman named Gaby (Mireille Balin), who's visiting Algiers as the consort of a wealthy, older man. Pépé falls for her, hard, and not just because of her beauty and wealth. Gaby represents everything he can't have — a life outside of the Casbah, where he's as much a prisoner as he is a king. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Pépé leaves himself open to Slimane's scheme to get Pépé out of the Casbah and into custody. Directed by Julien Duvivier, Pépé le Moko's 1938 American version, Algiers (starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr), is better known to filmgoers, but the original is a genuinely important part of cinema history. Besides possibly presenting the movies' first true antihero — described by film critic Michael Atkinson in his Village Voice essay on the film as "the rational man whose moral code conflicts with society, and whose destiny is marked by an ongoing argument with the world" — the picture is also one of the more definitive precursors to films noir. Using light and shadow in a similar fashion to his contemporaries Fritz Lang and Jacques Tourneur, Duvivier makes Algiers appear both sinister and cozy, and he uses the claustrophobic maze of the Casbah's streets to heighten suspense. One iconic scene has Pépé and his gang closing in on a squealer, who cowers behind a player-piano as it loudly and cheerfully spews a cacophony of rinky-tink music — the shadows, the off-kilter close-ups of the gang's faces, and the extreme shots of the gun's muzzle are pure noir, and could easily have been directed by Samuel Fuller, Robert Siodmak, or Michael Curtiz (who made his own homage to Pépé when he directed Casablanca in 1942 — going so far as to even cast one of the minor actors, Marcel Dalio, as a croupier). Criterion has done their usual magic on their DVD presentation of Pépé le Moko, creating a brand-new transfer from a 35mm fine-grain master positive — which was made from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative and additional restored footage. When available at all, this film has looked truly horrible for years, and Criterion has done an admirable job of cleaning it up. Presented in the original aspect ratio (1.33:1), almost all of the film is rich, clean and bright. A few scenes stand out because of their obviously inferior quality — but overall, it's an amazing restoration. The remastered 24-bit sound (in French, with optional English subtitles) has been cleaned up as well, with a little residual hiss and some popping but amazingly sharp otherwise. Extras include excerpts from Ginette Vincendeau's book Pépé le Moko, on the film's origins in 1920's French crime fiction and the architecture and history of Algiers (including period photos); a study on the influence of Pépé on modern culture, including its remakes Algiers(1938) and Casbah (1948), plus scene-to-scene comparisons between Pépé and Algiers; excerpts from a 1978 documentary on Jean Gabin (which also offers a chance, through included clips, to see just how ugly previously available versions of the film really were); a 1962 TV interview with director Duvivier; and the original theatrical trailer. The enclosed booklet includes Atkinson's Village Voice essay, which is informative if you can manage to wade through greasily pompous sentences like "The spirit of Pépé le Moko modernizes (and demythologizes, to a degree) Romantic sex-death, Baudelarian self-immolation and existentialist despair" without having to hose yourself down afterwards. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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