Atmosphere, intrigue, romance, and suspense are all in a day’s work for France’s most notorious jewel thief, Pepe Le Moko. In the classic romantic thriller Algiers, Pepe’s exploits showed audiences just how right it could feel to be on the wrong side of the law. Released in 1938, the film is one of the earliest examples of the emerging film noir genre, which highlighted the isolation, paranoia, and existential ennui of modern life, even in the midst of the exotic underworld of the Algerian capital.
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The story begins with police tracking Pepe (Charles Boyer) in the most recent in a long line of unsuccessful sting efforts. Recently arrived Commissioner Janvier (Paul Harvey) is humiliated when his strong-arm techniques fail and scoffs as veteran officer Inspector Slimane (Joseph Calleia) continues to maintain a strangely amiable game of cat and mouse with the elusive thief. As his criminal associates celebrate their latest success against the local authorities, however, Pepe remains aloof. It is then revealed that despite his latest victory against the authorities Pepe is in fact already a prisoner, albeit in a cell of his own making. Regardless of however many victories he may have against local inspectors, he is all too aware that should he leave the native quarter known as the Casbah he will find himself at the mercy of the full force of the French police, whom even he can’t elude forever. After years resigned to his fate he meets the alluring French tourist, Gaby (Hedy Lamarr), who is similarly trapped by her own efforts to enter high society through an impending loveless marriage. Invigorated by the first genuine connection that either of the mercenary duo have felt Pepe and Gaby hatch a plan to escape not just the Casbah but the lives of quiet desperation that they have resigned themselves to, no matter what the cost.
While at first glance Algiers appears to be just another exotic romantic drama, upon closer observation the film is revealed to be an innovative catalyst in Hollywood filmmaking. Perhaps best remembered today for inspiring amorous cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew, the remake of the French hit Pepe Le Moko was one of America’s first efforts to integrate European techniques since the use of German Expressionism during the silent era. With its claustrophobic settings, murky morals, and existential outlook, the film introduced the philosophical and social themes prominent in European films, while still maintaining the cleverly entertaining guise of a romantic adventure. The film also successfully merged American and European cinema through its gritty focus upon the criminal lifestyle reminiscent of the American gangster film, while still maintaining its core European sensibility. Although produced four years after the enforcement of the Hays Code, the film managed to lend viewers a frank look at modern sexuality through its portrayals of Pepe’s relationships with both local beauty Ines (Sigrid Gurie) and kept woman Gaby, without condescending to pass judgment on its complicated cast of characters. The film also offered a starkly modern finale in an interesting twist on the typical crime film by presenting Pepe’s tragic end not as an example of the ways in which ‘crime doesn’t pay’, but instead as the ultimate form of freedom. The film featured breakout performances for both Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr (who made her Hollywood debut in her role as Gaby) and went on to inspire a host of thinly veiled imitations, including the now classic Casablanca. In fact, it is reported that when screenwriters Philip and Julius Epstein persuaded producer David O Selznick to loan out Ingrid Bergman’s contract to Warner Brothers for the role of Ilsa, they only succeeded after describing Casablanca as “A lot of s*** like Algiers”.
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Although a faithful remake of Pepe Le Moko, Algiers became a classic in its own right through its truly star-making performances. Joseph Calleia exudes a fascinating combination of world weariness and sly charm in his role as Pepe’s greatest ally and most dangerous foe, Inspector Slimane. Sigrid Gurie takes what could have been a one-note role as Pepe’s scorned mistress and transforms Ines into a truly complicated woman who is at once the epitome of worldly sensuality and the picture of damaged vulnerability. Hedy Lamarr is luminous in her role as the elusive Gaby, aptly capturing both Gaby’s ambition and desperation while still maintaining a sophisticated façade. In the scenes that she shares with Boyer she perfectly embodies the playful excitement and anxious hesitance of new love with such nuance that it is little wonder that she quickly became a household name. Despite the multi-faceted performances surrounding him, the film truly belongs to Charles Boyer, whose charismatic anti-hero is at once a Robin Hood-esque rogue and a tragic figure. While Boyer himself felt that his performance paled in comparison to Jean Gabin’s, modern audiences continue to hear the name Pepe Le Moko and immediately picture Charles Boyer, and with good reason.
At once a captivating tale of romance and adventure and a psychological study of a life on the run, Algiers is a classic film with a modern edge. Through its clever dialogue, layered characterizations, and entrancing atmosphere Algiers is a journey into the good old, bad old days which audiences continue to return to. So what are you waiting for, follow Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr into the labyrinth of mystery, intrigue, and passion that is Pepe’s Casbah.
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