The release of "Pepe Le Moko" (1937) is a treat. Best known as the basis for the classic American film "Algiers" (1938), it's been unavailable in the United States for 60 years, except in butchered prints and bad videotapes. It turns out that "Pepe Le Moko" is even better than "Algiers."
The French original has it all over on the Hollywood version in the way it conveys atmosphere. It takes place in French Algeria, where the gangster Pepe Le Moko (Jean Gabin) is holed up in the Casbah, a labyrinthine district of alleys and markets, with a surprise around every corner. In the Casbah, Pepe is both king and prisoner. He rules the underworld, and the cops can't get near him. But he knows that he can never leave.
The American remake provided Charles Boyer with his signature role: He played Pepe as a romantic whose longing for Paris dooms him. But Gabin brings something else entirely to Pepe, an impulsiveness, a buoyancy, a tough-guy playfulness, and in the end he gives the more magnetic and persuasive performance.
Gabin's Pepe is a lovable, heart-on-his-sleeve sort of fellow, who inspires loyalty through sheer likability. He's young, well-dressed and has a bright open face, not unlike that of Kenneth Branagh.
One night, at the tail end of a shootout with cops, he meets a young, rich woman, Gaby (Mireille Balin), who is slumming with a party of friends. Gaby represents everything that Pepe can no longer have -- namely, Paris -- and the two start a romance.
The American version played up the romantic scenes, which benefited enormously from the Gaby of Hedy Lamarr, whose beauty defied description. But while those scenes retain their impact to this day, the French version, following the identical story, just makes more sense. In "Pepe Le Moko," the romance doesn't bring out the title character's fatalism but his exuberance. This Pepe has a real capacity for happiness.
In one particularly lovely sequence, Pepe is so pleased to be in love that he sings on his rooftop, while the native women, in the street, giggle to themselves affectionately.
© Mick LaSalle, "San Francisco Chronicle"