Tag Archives: Algiers

Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937)

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Pépé Le Moko is all attitude and atmosphere. It was remade in Hollywood as Algiers (John Cromwell, 1938) with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, a blockbuster success which made a star of Lamarr and inspired the ‘take me to the casbah’ tagline still vivid to a generation of filmgoers. Boyer as Pépé was the inspiration for Pepe le Pew, the romantic cartoon skunk, enveloped in stink but searching for love.

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Jean Gabin´s Pépé is more reminiscent of Bogart in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), an outer cynicism masking a fatal romanticism, smart and witty, cool and up for a joke in the most trying circumstances. The dialogue by Henri Jeanson overlays wit with ironic nonchalance and underlays it with danger and threat: it´s brilliant.

Pépé´s on the lam from the law, continuing to rob, the leader of his gang and a legend in the casbah. The casbah is such a jumble of doorways, alleyways and rooftops, that he can escape the police. But it has become its own prison. He´s sure to be arrested once he leaves it and descends into town. He dreams of freedom and Paris but makes do. He says  he´s happy to give his body to any woman but he won´t lose his head by giving up his heart. That is until he meets Gabby (Mireille Balin). The scene where he eyes up her jewellery is superb, all close-up longing, and initially one´s unsure if that longing is for the jewels or the woman.

Duvivier brilliantly directs for tone, atmosphere, and he knows how to get the joke in. The film has memorable set-pieces (the retribution for the betrayal of Pépé´s younger side-kick), Gabin and Frehél sing in the same film for the first time since Coeur de Lilas (Anatole Litvak, 1932) . And there´s a swoonily fatalistic  romantic ending where Pépé yells to his beloved. She´s on a ship  returning to France and his voice is drowned out by the ship´s whistle. Like in the great noirs that were to come later in the forties, he´s so undone by love, regret, a possibility receding before his very eyes, already crying for her, that he chooses death over prison and a life without Paris and her. It´s terrific.

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Gabin weeps his loss.

Gabin had already worked with Duvivier four times previously, in Maria Chapdelain (1934), Golgotha (1935), La Bandera (1935) and La Belle équipe (1936), and they would make other films together in the future (e.g. Voici le temps des assassins), But Pépé might well be the pinnacle of their success. In Pépé le Moko, her BFI book on the film, Ginette Vincendeau has convincingly argued that Pépé is the film that clinches the Gabin myth.  It´s a film that tried to find a vein and tone with which to communicate with its audience  in as entertaining a way as possible. This helped make it a blockbuster success then and that it continues to speak to several other generations of audiences means that it´s enjoyed enduring popularity since.

José Arroyo

Kiss of the Damned (Xan Cassavetes, USA, 2012)

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A film buff’s delight, and not only because of the director’s parentage (John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands for those of you who might not yet know). The film begins with some of the narration from Vittorio De Sica’s Indescretion of an American Wife (a.k.a. Terminal Station, USA/ Italy, 1953) with Jennifer Jones expressing her loneliness and her need whilst visually we’re introduced to a handsomel house in Connecticut and a lovely woman, Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume) who evokes some of the beautiful porcelain vacuity of an Ursula Andress or a Sharon Stone.

Djuna meets Paolo (Milo Ventimiglio) in a video store showing Algiers (John Cromwell, USA, 1938) with Hedy Lamarr. He drinks scotch and writes arty screenplays that don’t sell. At a bar, they fall for each other but she can’t see him: she’s got an ‘illness’. He pursues her, wants her; he longs for the danger and excitement he knows she can provide. He follows her to her house and there’s a brilliant scene where she keeps the door chain on, they kiss, the kiss is filmed from above in a striking composition made up of a rectangle of light formed by the partly opened door, but then he recoils in pain, looks through the side of the door and sees her fangs reflected in the mirror (this is a vampire film that does not respect all vampire lore).

He doesn’t quite believe that she can really be a vampire so she gets him to tie her to the bed with enormous silver chains, turn her on and wait for the fangs to come out. The chains ensure his safety but he doesn’t want to be safe and removes them. The scene is delirious and ludicrous and sexy and something else too: one gets a sense that sex can be bloody and dangerous and all the more desirable for that. This is rendered even more perverse by the insertion of the wonderful scene from  Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana where Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) drugs his niece Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) and plans to rape her whilst a little girl climbs a tree to get a better view.

Needless to say Djuna and Paolo fall in love. She ‘turns’ him and introduces him to her coterie of chic vampires led by Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), the queen of the ‘international clan’ who is a star actress longing for human applause and whose house they are staying at. The vampires talk about human blood substitutes, the beluga of ethically sourced platelets and True Blood whilst listening to Chopin. She’s clearly introduced him to a glamorous witty world he’d never have had access to and everything seems to be going swimmingly until Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida, she of the frank, gritty, somewhat coarse, rather wonderful Catherine Breillat films) arrives. Mimi is hungry, rapacious, amoral: there’s a wonderful scene where she tries to manipulate Xenia by presenting her with a fan, a virgin, and making sure her water glass is nicked so as to draw blood.  Can Xenia resist? Can Paolo resist Mimi?

All of this is filmed as a kind of homage to Hammer Horror and Italian giallo, with particular reference to Dario Argento. Everything about the film seems slightly off, other-worldly, consciously fake and slightly stilted; a feeling exacerbated by everyone except Ventimiglio and Michael Rapaport (wonderful as a sweaty, rapacious agent) seeming to speak their lines phonetically. The music too, though evidently composed for the film, also evokes the cinema Kiss of the Damned renders homage to. It’s nice to see a vampire film that’s once more about romance, loneliness, violence and the polymorphousness and mutability of desire.

In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a Professor of Greek tells his students, ‘Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instants, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves…If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face: let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn’ (pp.44-45).

The characters in Kiss of the Damned  feel as the professor does even as they try to take control of themselves. However, the film itself suffers from also reining itself in by genre, convention, allusion and quotation. It sometimes seems more concerned with expressing its particular themes through an evocation of a period and a genre, to exist tightly locked into a matrix of allusion, than to elicit the raw pleasures audiences that go to genre films expect. Kiss  of the Damned has sex, gore, desire and romance; and it does thrill – just not enough: not enough terror, not enough beauty.

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José Arroyo