The term "poetic realism" doesn't really work. Poetry is the redemption of reality. The particular style of filmmaking one encounters in the best French films of the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s, from Rene Clair's Le Million (1931) to Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), is much more poetic than realistic. There is a moment near the end of Pépé le Moko, Julien Duvivier's marvelous 1937 film, in which Pepe is at last leaving the Casbah to join Gaby on a ship to Oran. As he walks, determinedly and almost joyfully, Duvivier resorts to using a process shot, a rear-screen projection, that shows us Jean Gabin walking facing towards and away from the camera as dizzying images of the Casbah's labyrinthine streets are projected behind - and in front - of his head. Of course, it's only Gabin pretending to walk in front of a screen on which the exterior shots are projected. At first one is tempted to object to this intrusion of patented falsity - until one realizes that it is actually Duvivier's poetry. It was never intended to look real. The images even dissolve into one another as Gabin mimes his long walk to freedom.
Pépé le Moko is a distinctively French film, but looking at it eighty years after its initial release, so much of it is so intolerably contrived that it was halfway to Hollywood when it was being made. There are too many Europeans trying to pass for Arabs, too many types trying to pass for the real thing. (One character, L'Arbi, is played by the great Marcel Dalio, made up as an Arab, tarbush and all.) It explores the Casbah of Algiers as thoroughly as Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers did thirty years later. Algeria was French in 1936, almost as close to Marseilles as Mexico was to Hollywood. The extended montage depicting the Casbah, with the French Chief Inspector's voiceover, is a virtual rogue's travelogue.
Pépé is a legendary thief, hated by the police and loved by the people of the Casbah, especially by women. When, for example, he is moved by his gratified love for Gaby to sing from a rooftop, women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, hear him and smile. "Pépé is happy!" they shout, running and clapping beneath his terrace. But the police are always waiting for Pépé to make some mistake, to expose himself in a vulnerable place, or to go outside the safety of the Casbah. He meets a beautiful Parisian woman, who has entered the Casbah as much for a chance to see Pépé as to take in its exotic attractions. Beguiled by her jewels and by her knowledge of the Paris that he longs to see again, he falls for her and wants to escape from the entrapment of his life in Algiers.
There are many celebrated scenes, like the one in which Pépé and Gaby recite the Paris Metro stops one by one until they arrive simultaneously at the same stop. Or when Pépé first sees Gaby, and his eyes pass first to her rings and bracelets, then to her her pearl necklace and earrings, until he finally notices the beauty of her smiling face. Then there is the scene in which an old cocotte sadly sings along with a recording of a song that she sang when she was young and hopeful. With tears in her eyes, surrounded by souvenirs of her desirability, she gives us an indelible image of sadness for a lost youth, a lost beauty.
In Algiers, the American remake of Pépé, Charles Boyer played Gabin's role. He was an effective actor - Hollywood's stock suave Frenchman, but he was no Jean Gabin. Gabin brings Pépé to life. He is convincing no matter what he does or says. Perhaps only James Cagney could've pulled off a performance of such power. But Cagney was a short man who made up for his lack of size with toughness and tenacity. Gabin's best scene is the one in which he gets roaring drunk after the death of Pierrot and, longing to escape the Casbah and see Gaby, he is almost caught by the police when he starts walking down towards the port. Ines, a girl who loves him, tricks him into returning to his house where, she tells him, Gaby waits for him. When he learns that she lied to him, instead of getting angry at Ines, Pépé sees her love for him and that her lie saved him from getting caught.
Among Pépé's henchmen there is Gilbert-Gil, as Pierrot, a young crook whom Pepe has taken under his wing, who looks strikingly like Jean-Pierre Leaud. Gaston Modot, who plays incessantly with a child's toy, hasn't much else to do except remind us of his much more substantial roles in L'Age d'Or and La Regle du Jeu and Les Enfants du Paradis.
Something must be said about Mireille Balin, the beautiful actress, born in Monaco, who plays Pépé's Gaby. During the German Occupation, she fell in love with a Wehrmacht officer named Birl Desbok. When Paris was about to be liberated by Allied forces in '44, they fled towards the Italian border, but were arrested near Nice. The couple were separated, with Desbok probably killed and Balin beaten and raped. She was imprisoned until after the war, when she was forbidden to appear in films for one year. When the prohibition was lifted, she made only one more film, in 1947, before withdrawing from society completely. She died in 1968, without a sou.
Pépé le Moko is by far Duvivier's most popular film, if not his best. It isn't every day that a foreign film is so popular that Hollywood not only tries to cash in on its success but also tries to reproduce it virtually frame by frame. For the Criterion DVD of Pepe, a shot-by-shot comparison was made with Algiers, and the extent to which Duvivier's film was stolen is undeniable, if somewhat funny by now. But there is enough location photography, matched with clever studio-shot scenes, to give Pépé an authenticity that Hollywood could only dream of. And Duvivier's realistic poetry lends lyricism to an otherwise unedifying tale of a happiness too far away to reach.