Pépé le moko is a reminder that the French weren't simply inspired by film noir, but instead had a hand in creating that most American of genres. Just as many of the established stateside classics were directed by studio journeymen from pulp novels, this pre-WWII masterpiece was brought to the screen by the still largely dismissed Julien Duvivier and based on a book written under a pseudonym by a French policeman who had spent time in Algiers. The film nails its setting, allowing the camera to jaggedly cut its way into the narrow corridors of the winding streets that make up the Casbah - often, it feels like the district is actively resisting the film, trying to expel it from the corridors. Meanwhile, Jean Gabin lords over the proceedings in a dominant performance.
Gabin is - if I am allowed to generalize and simplify for a moment - the French Bogart. Though neither actor is traditionally attractive, the camera gravitates towards them effortlessly, almost magically. Both actors required little background or establishing character traits to legitimize their towering presence within a film's universe - they simply were, in the grandest sense of the word. Nowhere is this comparison more apparent than in Pépé le moko, which shares a number of superficial elements with Casablanca, the film which immortalized Bogart. Both movies are set in French Africa populated with double-crossing thieves and deep shadows around every turn, and both center around a doomed romance. More importantly, though, each film has its respective star as both the gravitational pull of the story and the setting's folk hero. Gabin and Bogart must be iconic figures for the motivations of the surrounding characters to make sense, and each star pulls this off with effortless suave.
Besides Gabin, the most interesting element of Pépé le moko is the romance which is Gabin's undoing. Gabin falls in love because he is tired of running and longs for his home in Paris, but the playgirl he falls for seems drawn to him as a novelty. We must rely exclusively on Gabin's admittedly powerful presence to convince ourselves that she really is in love with him and isn't just in it for the thrill. If Gabin had gotten away, would their relationship actually have lasted even as long as the ship's journey back to Europe? This seems to me less a question about whether or not the love story is legitimate and more about whether or not this mystery playgirl represented an actual person (or even just a symbol of personal love) rather than France itself - or at least the France Gabin knew. He discards his "exotic" lover in the Casbah (who then betrays him) with ease, and she seems to sit in for Algiers in general. Gabin's choice is France over Africa, and his final moment is the confirmation of his love for his country - if France can't have him, no one can.
Patriotism might seem like a strange theme for a film that features a decidedly anti-heroic protagonist. But Pépé le moko has little interest in condemning Gabin, even though it is consistently clear that he won't escape a moralistic fate before "Fin" flashes on the screen. Even before noir (and even before pre-noir) cinema glamorized those who burned brightest, even for an instant. Interestingly, we never get to see Gabin's finest moments as a thief in the film, since we enter the story as he is already in hiding. His most cinematic moment, then, is his last, when the Casbah can no longer contain him and France calls him home. Regardless of its allegiances, Pépé le moko is a brilliant and moving work of pre-noir pulp, and one of the defining "movie star" performances of French cinema.