Friday, January 23, 2015

'Pepe le Moko': Shading into noir

Jean Gabin as Pepe -- he'll never have Paris.
This essay originally appeared in Senses of Cinema in November 2013.

By Brad Weismann

“Come weez me to zee Casbah!”

This famous Hollywood misquote, and the amorous adventures of the animated skunk Pépé le Pew, might seem to constitute the only lasting bit of cultural fallout from Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937). However, this classic film resonates in much less obvious and more far-reaching ways. It stands as the place of origin of several vital archetypes, not the least of which is Jean Gabin himself.

The film’s international success prompted MGM to buy the American rights for it immediately. In keeping with studio policy of the time, the original was kept from American distributors while the US version, Algiers (1938) was cranked out less than a year later. Such is the strength and coherence of the original that Algiers director John Cromwell, in a rare and unusual move, is purported to have kept a copy of Pépé le Moko on a Moviola on the shooting stage so that the original’s setups and camera moves could be replicated as closely as possible. Ironically, this approach would garner Oscar nominations for the art director and cinematographer of Algiers.

Even 1942’s Casablanca was conceived of as another exotic vehicle for Hedy Lamarr, who took on a role strongly resembling Mireille Balin’s original performance of Gaby, Pépé’s amour fou. When trying to “borrow” Ingrid Bergman from producer David Selznick for the key role of Ilsa in Casablanca (MGM wouldn’t lend Lamarr to Warner Bros.), it’s claimed that writer Julius Epstein ended his pitch meeting with, “Oh, what the hell! It’s going to be a lot of shit like Algiers!”

Duvivier’s original film is one of five starring Jean Gabin during 1935-37, a string of hits that established him as the number-one male star in France. La Bandera (1935), La Belle équipe and Pépé le Moko were all collaborations with Duvivier; the actor also made Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936) and La Grande illusion (1937) during that time with Jean Renoir.

In all these movies Gabin is the epitome of the (French) common man. He’s a regular fellow, a tough guy with a touch of poetry in him. After a generation of brilliantined, toothy leading men, Gabin was “natural” – almost studiously unaffected, impertinent, slangy. This incredibly appealing persona – a man all women want to bed, and all men want to have a beer with – rapidly became as rigid as those inhabited and crafted by Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. Gabin films became a subgenre in themselves, featuring the same archetypes, plot points, and even a contractually obligatory, pivotal emotional outburst by Gabin for every finished product. No wonder François Truffaut despised him, as the emblem of a “Tradition of Quality” that Truffaut saw as a dead hand on the throttle of mainstream cinema.

In Pépé le Moko, Gabin is a kind of Noble Savage: the equivalent of a robber chieftain, skilled and highly regarded, but still outside the pale of polite society. He is the King of the Casbah, but also its prisoner – he has left a string of busted banks and dead policemen after him, and will go to the death house if he is ever taken. Like Napoleon on Elba, or King Kong on Skull Island, he is extraordinary and powerful, but also circumscribed. Indeed, his end bears echoes of “Beauty and the Beast” without the redemption (1).

The Casbah, with its narrow, twisting streets, multiple terraces, hidey-holes, secret passages, and trapdoors – the insularity that only a polyglot population of outcasts can provide – is impenetrable to the police (2). Pépé must be drawn out into the logical, Europeanised space, where he can be arrested. Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux), a cross between Javert and Iago, baits the trap with the lovely Gaby, a Parisienne slumming in the native quarter when Pépé encounters her.

Nevertheless, it’s not desire that kills Pépé, but nostalgia. In many ways, Pépé is a perfect bourgeois. His impeccable wardrobe, his fatherly concern for his gang, his “respectable” trade (robbery is the white-collar work of crime, requiring planning, capital investment, and proper staffing) – if he were on the right side of the law, he would probably be a pillar of society. (His wholeness and complexity are foregrounded by the fragmented, two-dimensional characteristics of his gang members – it’s a joy to see such regulars of the era as Gaston Modot and Marcel Dalio populate the film.)

But Pépé is literally circumscribed, and he is suffering from a malaise so prevalent to the French that they gave it an idiom – “avoir le canard”, a mixture of disconnectedness and self-pity found in exile. Gaby is not fascinating in and of herself, really not much more than a high-priced call girl, but she embodies everything about his beloved Paris for Pépé. He wants to turn back the clock, to walk the streets of Montmartre, to assert a freedom he no longer possesses. This dream leads him to his doom.

In its bleakness, Pépé le Moko fits into the classification of 1930s French poetic realism (or is it more accurately populist melodrama?). In most of these films, a proletarian protagonist is slated for inevitable destruction – absolutely reactionary in that it typifies the struggle for positive change as hopeless.

Like the other romantic heroes he played, Gabin’s Pépé will not accept the fate that keeps him down – of course, the racist correlative to this is that he refuses to share the contemptible status of a native, an outcast, or an unfortunate. He wants what he feels is his due as a white Frenchman.

Unlike Milton’s Satan, Pépé doesn’t choose to reign in Hell. As he races out of the Casbah to the docks to find Gaby, his surroundings fade away and are replaced by matte shots of Montmartre. Whether labelled as childish romanticism or ego, Pépé is surely the first film character to die because he couldn’t have Paris. (Conversely, in Casablanca the ill-fated lovers are redeemed because they discover they’ll “always have Paris”.) He’d rather be Pépé le Parisien than Pépé le Moko.

Duvivier’s creation spins high culture out of low. A key aspect of poetic realism is its insistence in finding beauty in the mundane, a hallmark of all of Duvivier’s films. Duvivier isn’t generally perceived as an auteur and, like Michael Curtiz and Victor Fleming, he can be regarded as a master of the Golden Age house style favoured by the major studios – “invisible” editing, tricky but unobtrusive camera movement, and an obsession with lighting and extracting the values of the human face.

For all its air of gritty realism, Pépé le Moko is a highly controlled, stylised production. After the story’s construction, colloquial expert Henri Jeanson worked up the hardboiled dialogue. Duvivier did almost all of his principal photography in the studio, creating extensive set work that allowed much more precise lighting. Marc Fossard and Jules Krüger’s cinematography is meticulous and worthy of the Oscar notice its imitation stirred. It illuminates the mise en scène created by art director Jacques Krauss with genuine interest and inventiveness.

All of these elements would migrate into French and American film noir especially as the aesthetics of black-and-white began to reemerge in contrast to the conservative, evenly lit colour film palettes of the time. Instead of heroic deaths, though, the generations of noir protagonists to follow were suckers, playthings of dark forces, who frequently wound up dead for no reason at all.

This unique intersection of talent, mood and theme gives us a perfectly pitched movie; enjoyable simply as an adventure in itself, with fascinating overtones for those whose vision goes deeper (3).

1. There is a cornucopia of derivations of the nickname “Moko” in film, few complimentary. It’s instructive to note that the name of the villainous drug lord in Robert Rodriguez’s 1992 feature debut El Mariachi is Moco – Spanish for booger.
2. The idea of it being an organic, anti-linear, female space is explored, along with much else, far more completely and eloquently in Ginette Vincendeau’s invaluable book-length examination of the film, Pépé le Moko, BFI, London, 1998.
3. The following sources were also consulted in the preparation of this article: Colleen Kennedy-Karpat, Rogues, Romance, and Exoticism in French Cinema of the 1930s, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, Madison/Teaneck, 2013; Michael F. O’Riley, Cinema in an Age of Terror: North Africa, Victimization, and Colonial History, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2010; David Henry Slavin, Colonial Cinema and Imperial France, 1919-1939: White Blind Spots, Male Fantasies, Settler Myths, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 2001; Ginette Vincendeau, The Companion to French Cinema, BFI, London, 1996; Ginette Vincendeau, Stars and Stardom in French Cinema, Continuum, London, 2000.

Pépé le Moko (1937 France 94 mins)
Prod Co: Paris Film Prod: Robert Hakim, Raymond Hakim [both uncredited] Dir: Julien Duvivier Scr: Henri La Barthe, Julien Duvivier, Jacques Constant, based on the novel by Henri La Barthe [as Ashelbé]; dialogue by Henri Jeanson Phot: Marc Fossard, Jules Krüger Ed: Marguerite Beaugé Art Dir: Jacques Krauss Mus: Vincent Scotto, Mohamed Yguerbouchen

Cast: Jean Gabin, Gabriel Gabrio, Saturnin Fabre, Fernand Charpin, Lucas Gridoux, Gilbert Gil, Marcel Dalio, Charles Granval, Mireille Balin

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: Patton Oswalt's "Silver Screen Fiend"

Silver Screen Fiend
Patton Oswalt
New York City


It’s riveting to be made to understand late in life that you are nuts. Such was the initial fallout of my reading comedian Patton Oswalt’s second memoir. Gee, I would never have characterized my arts obsessions and need to see all of every subject’s work, my snotty cineaste pretentiousness, as counterproductive. Ulp.

In “Silver Screen Fiend,” Oswalt hits the trifecta – he takes a life-sapping obsession and simultaneously exorcises it, celebrates it, and exploits it. It’s like this: Oswalt went through a four-year period of compulsive movie-watching, during a period when he added comedy writing for television and sitcom acting to his resume, finding his way through the entertainment ecosystem. We get to sit through hundreds of nights of weird flicks with him, and track him as he stumbles through Hollywood.

“Silver Screen Fiend” is well-written and entertaining, chock-full of the baroquely couched and erudite observations that are Oswalt’s trademark. He zooms in and out of significant events, deftly analyzing the social dynamics of the key comedy venues that enabled his growth as a performer, and cracking so wise about his errors and delusions that you feel a friendly, kindred spirit is talking to you through the pages.

And, film junkies, there’s more! Oswalt has the gonads to throw in a program he concocts of films that never got made, but wouldn’t it be cool if they had? Nice. Along with the four-year list of all the movies he saw, and when and where he saw them. Hey, he acknowledges he had a problem. It’s still fun to riffle through it.

Caveat: I was a comic for years and I still report extensively about film, so both parallels of narrative here fascinate me. He has a lot of wisdom to share with young and/or aspiring artists – basically, quit bitching and do your work. We could all use that little reminder from time to time.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Formative Film 6: Chuck Amok -- Charlton Heston’s Apocalyptic Trilogy

It’s not easy being Chuck. Let’s start with the fact that Charlton Heston’s birth name was John Carter. This doesn’t sound too bad, unless you consider that one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s great pulp heroes, one familiar to every American boy in 1924, the year Heston was born, was John Carter of Mars. It would be the equivalent of naming your kid Tarzan or Zorro . . . or even Johnny Utah.

Planet of the Apes
Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner
Prod: Mort Abrahams, Arthur P. Jacobs
Scr: Michael Wilson, Rod Serling
Phot: Leon Shamroy
US Release Date: April 3, 1968

The Omega Man
Dir: Boris Sagal
Prod: Walter Seltzer
Scr: John William and Joyce Hooper Corrington; William Peter Blatty (uncr)
Phot: Russell Metty
US Release Date: Aug. 1, 1971

Soylent Green
Dir: Richard Fleischer
Prod: Walter Seltzer, Russell Thacher
Scr: Stanley R. Greenberg
Phot: Richard H. Kline
US Release Date: May 9, 1973

Before Charlton Heston became a liberal bugbear at the end of his life, he was pretty much as close as you could get to a deity in Hollywood, the epitome of the Leading Man. He played a panoply of sinewy nostril-flaring heroes such as Buffalo Bill (Pony Express, 1953), Andrew Jackson (The President’s Lady, 1953) and The Buccaneer, 1958), Moses (The Ten Commandments, 1956), John the Baptist (The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965), “Chinese” Gordon (Khartoum, 1966), Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965) Ben-Hur (1959), El Cid (1961), in ever larger and more epic productions. Even his Harry Steele in the B movie Secret of the Incas (1954) was the template for Indiana Jones.

Nicole Maury and Heston in Secret of the Incas (1954).
 His gallery of cinematic nobles all have an unmistakable tang of American-ness, a rough-planed athletic contrast to his usual array of flabby, British-accented opponents. (Since the days of Charles Laughton, the task of playing many a nefarious cinematic Roman, Egyptian, Scythian, Atlantean, or what have you has fallen to Britons. Something sinister about those round, rolling tones.)

Although Heston has been often parodied as the archetype of the tight-assed, sweat-glistening, stiff-chinned, teeth-clenched protagonist, there are a number of subtle and nuanced performances of his to look at as well. He continued to return to the stage throughout his life, not something a lazy actor would indulge in. If you doubt his abilities, check him out in roles such as Cardinal Richelieu in Lester’s Musketeer films, various projects produced and/or directed by his son Fraser (Treasure Island (1990), A Man for All Seasons (1988), The Crucifer of Blood (1991), and most notably as the lead in the eponymous Western Will Penny (1967).

And he was equally capable, seemingly, of phoning it in, especially later on in his career. Airport 1975 (oddly, 1974)? Gray Lady Down (1978)? Earthquake (1974)? For Lord’s sake, The Awakening (1980)? If not inspired by the material, Heston tends to snaps into two dimensions, taut, tense, and flat.

Somewhere in between these pitches of performing acumen are three films that burned themselves into my brain. One after another, they trooped through our little local cinema and form a trilogy in my mind. They all share two ingredients – Chuck Heston wrenched out of context, a humorless hero lost in a world not of his own making – carted along with a dim view of humanity’s chances for survival.

What motivated him to take on these three films? After the crashing failure of his final two big-budget epics, The War Lord (1965) and Khartoum, he was looking for something different. When Planet of the Apes, the best-remembered film of the three, made seven times its production costs, it meant not only that sci-fi was seen as viable for grown-up audiences, but it spawned a franchise that has endured nearly a dozen iterations and two reboots.

Heston in his autobiography calls it “. . . the first of the space operas . . .”, conveniently forgetting a long line of precedents stretching back to Melies’s A Trip to the Moon in 1902. It was, however, the first sci-fi feature film that was to pick up on the pessimism and social criticism that had been a strong strain in the genre in print, on radio and on TV for at least a decade. Planet of the Apes quite literally makes monkeys out of cultural conceits about identity, history, censorship and repression, and creationism.

Heston writes that he saw his character Taylor as “a cynical misanthrope, so disenchanted with his fellow man that, perhaps unconsciously, he’s exiled himself from Earth, launched through time to an unknown future.” He ends up the last of his species, stripped and led around by a collar, prodded, hosed down, beaten, brought to heel, pleading for respect. The Alpha Male as Housepet.

Highlights: the amazing Jerry Goldsmith score, which almost singlehandedly dragged film composition in to the 20th century, the award-winning makeup, and the actors who had to act through the makeup somehow, so effectively.

In “The Omega Man,” he’s the Alpha Male as Antichrist.

It’s the second of three screen adaptations of the endlessly inventive Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. It’s a great template for a story – last man on Earth vs. vampire/zombies. In this version, plague survivor Neville (Heston) fights not the unholy dead but some diseased, hooded albino mutant Luddites who reject and want to destroy all technology. (Of course, this makes it that much easier for Chuck to blow them away – they fight only with spears, arrows, and flame.)

Heston’s character roams the deserted city during the day, an urban hunter/gatherer, with mutants in his sights. Like the Caucasian upper classes he represents, he lives with every creature comfort, in complete freedom and in complete isolation. He’s the coolest guy in town, but he’s still a thin-lipped, tight-assed white devil. It’s only when he finds that not only are there other non-mutant survivors, but that his blood can be used to cure the mutants, that the parable takes a hard right turn – and the Antichrist becomes Christ when, right down to a spread-armed death posture and the transmittal of salvation in the form of his blood, he is accomplished.

Highlights: Anthony Zerbe’s wonderful turn as Brother Matthias, head of the mutant patrol. His mellifluous voice lingers over phrases such as “Ill-YOO-shun” and “Heah is the in-stroo-ment of KLEN-SING, my brethren!” And the happy pseudo-mariachi music that plays over the credits. Makes you think the survivors are going to Cancun for spring break. Kind of cheers you up a tad.

By the time Heston gets to Soylent Green, he’s the Alpha Male as Nonentity. He’s just a police detective in an overcrowded future Manhattan, investigating a murder that leads him to discover that man’s food supply, for reasons of cost-effectiveness, has become mankind itself.

Richard  Fleisher’s direction is top-notch, and the message here is blunt – the rich eat the poor, a metaphor not built on until Brian Yuzna’s bizarre and disturbing horror film Society 16 years later. When at the end Heston’s character Thorn screams out the famous line, “IT’S PEOPLE! SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!” he’s wounded and is being taken away by other policemen – led by the very police captain (the magnificently crabby Brock Peters) who was bribed to get Heston off the case to begin with. It seems a safe bet to assume that his warning will never make it to official channels. Charlton Heston, the ultimate Cracker, is about to be processed into one.

 Highlight: Edward G. Robinson, in his last role – he died 12 days after completing it. A medium supporting role, a trifle, really, in a typical genre film. But he gets every bit of nuance out of it, commanding the eye when he’s onscreen. It’s even more impressive to see his timing in repartee when you learn he was almost stone-deaf when he performed it. And his last scene is his death scene. There are no small parts.