Pépé le Moko ★★★★★

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 7: French Poetic Realism

Although I thoroughly enjoyed 1937's Pépé le Moko, it seems to me that it's actually a violation of one of the basic premises behind the French Poetic Realism movement; for my understanding is that the "Realism" part of that phrase comes from these movies being social-realist character studies, eschewing the kind of genre work that used to be the only kinds of films with inventive, artistic visuals, while Moko is about as genre as genre films get, a clever noir about a charming folk-hero criminal who is "hiding in plain sight" among the dark, twisting alleyways of the international quarter (aka "the Casbah") of the pre-war French-controlled North African city of Algiers. That little quibble over semantics aside, though, this was a tremendously entertaining movie, much more mainstream-engaging than I thought anything from the 1930s French film industry could be; and indeed, this was such an unexpected hit for veteran director Julien Duvivier that MGM signed him to a Hollywood contract because of it, where he cranked out a whole series of popular films throughout the 1940s as war raged in Europe (the most famous perhaps being 1943's Flesh and Fantasy, starring Edward G. Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck among others).

I mean, certainly the "Poetic" part of "French Poetic Realism" is here; <s>partly filmed down in the actual Casbah itself</s> (CORRECTION! Turns out the exteriors were actually filmed in a village in southern France, which looks so realistically like the Casbah that it still tricked my eyes 80 years later), like so many noirs of the period this is a triumph of slick, sometimes breathtaking style, putting us down in the middle of the dark alleyways of this shady, exotic neighborhood. And also like the best noirs, the rich and bizarre characters way outshine the merely serviceable plot -- from our George-Clooney-like antihero Pepe, always suave and impeccably dressed, to his gypsy girlfriend Inès, and especially Lucas Gridoux as the fascinating police inspector Slimane (a role you can easily imagine being played by Peter Lorre in an English-language version), who goes slumming each night in the Casbah with the actual criminals themselves, none of whom are threatened by him because he just sort of shrugs at their crimes as they're committed around him, none of them realizing that he has a grand master plan at work that will eventually spell doom for them all. If you're looking for a great example of French Poetic Realism but don't want to sit through some talky snoozer about a bunch of poverty-stricken factory workers, this is the one for you, a film as exciting and as atmospheric as the best noirs and crime dramas Hollywood had to offer in these years as well. And speaking of noirs, next up this week is 1938's Port of Shadows, one of the first-ever movies to be described with the actual "film noir" term, and once again starring the hero of Moko as well, smouldering international star Jean Gabin.

UPDATE: After reading the really well-done characterization breakdown of this film by FSDO Challenge creator Disgustipated, I can now much more easily see why one might call this a "realism" film, despite it couching itself in many of the tropes of the noir and crime genres. There's actually a lot more going on in the head of our tortured antihero Pepe than I gave him credit for; read Disgustipated's writeup for a thorough breakdown if you're interested.

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