The Death Rattle of Algiers

21 Oct 2013: Pépé Le Moko (DVD, 1936, Julien Duvivier)

There’s plenty of misogyny and colonialist racism but hard-edged attitude and atmosphere here to launch the thousand crime and/or foreign intrigue films that this movie seems to have done, if the enthusiastic author of this DVD’s liner notes can be believed. Though it has some memorable uses of camera – framing a desperate, tragic Jean Gabin and the missed ship away from his expatriate purgatory with prison-bar-like fence-posts over compositions; a distinct lengthy high-angle pan from the rooftops along a narrow alleyway; a fair amount of direct-at-camera dialogue – and literary trappings (a voice-over narration floridly describing the diverse inhabitants of the Casbah; hard-boiled fatalistic speeches), the movie feels more generic than artful, hewing more to a standard grit and toughness and romance than any kind of special personal vision on the part of the director, writer (of either source or adaptation) or other contributors. (Sort of like Casablanca.) Important information depends on the protagonist’s extended torture of unctuous foreigners, and the protagonist’s downfall is the result of betrayal on the part of an unctuous foreign woman, so identity politicians are unlikely to find the story bearable as part of an ideology that idealizes the white heroes and their home of Paris as removed from the filth and mess of Algiers, but as is the case with the clearly racist H. P. Lovecraft, the complexity of this psychology of disgust manifests, along with the intent to revulse, an undeniable implicit exotic appeal to these very “untouchable” and “fearsome” milieux and characters that resonates more in the end than the explicit claims of traditional supremacy.

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