“Pepe le Moko” (1937)

Directed by Julien Duvivier
France, 94 minutes
Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin, Gabriel Gabrio, Line Nord

Films are supposed to be fun. That’s why everyone likes them, right? Who wants to sit through a 90-minute piece of serious, artsy mumbo jumbo? (Well, I do, but I’m not everybody.)

Pepe le Moko is a fun film. I can’t remember the last time I had as much fun watching a foreign film as I did when seeing Pepe for the first time. There are some hilarious banter, some fantastic action and some wonderfully filmed romance scenes. Easily my favorite sequence is when Pepe first meets Gaby. For what feels like an eternity, Duvivier keeps cutting between shots of Jean Gabin’s eyes and various shots of parts of Mireille Balin’s body. It is literally sexiness personified – and the characters don’t speak a word to each other. Then, there’s that amazing ending where the tension just continues to build for a full fifteen minutes before Duvivier works his final stroke of magic.

For a $29.99 MSRP release, Criterion squeezed on a nice selection of extras, although only two are video extras. There is a nice, five minute or so TV interview with Duvivier. He does not really cover specifically Pepe, although he does mention it. Excerpts of Remembering Jean Gabin, totaling 35 minutes, are included. It’s a pretty nice documentary, briefly touching on Pepe, but Gabin was such an interesting character that I didn’t mind that one bit. Finally, there are a couple of stills galleries that talk about Pepe’s importance and a really neat feature comparing clips of Pepe to Hollywood’s word-for-word re-make, Algiers (1938).

While the film itself is fantastic and looks great, the artwork leaves much to be desired. Early Criterions had horrific designs, but by 2003, they were getting better. Pepe le Moko, though a 2003 release, has the worst design I have ever seen. The cover is plainly ugly and the menus are damn-near unreadable. The insert has one essay – if you can even see it. White text on sand is a terrible idea. If I had not actually read about the film and was looking at it completely blind, I would never have bought it based off of the artwork.

The Verdict: What a great film this is. Gabin and everyone else are wonderful in it. What really amazed me about it though is how much of a prototype it really is for the post-WWII noir genre. It really sets an amazingly high bar. Pepe le Moko is also very, very French. Gabin and Balin scream sex and cool every time they are on screen together. Get this film now. It’s a fun film that is sadly obscure. Don’t let the horrid artwork turn you off.

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