The Movies That Made Me Weird(er): Algiers (1938)

24 08 2011

Disembodied Floating Heads -- The Movie

Unlike most kids born after the advent of color TV, I had a fascination with black and white movies, the older the better. I went through a protracted phase during which my sole criterion in choosing late night viewing was the age of the film. The oldest ones gave me a vaguely trippy sense of hurtling back through time — a sensation enhanced by the combination of being half-asleep and sitting thisclose to the TV, so I could see each individual pixel and hear the dialogue over the hiss that old movies acquire as the film stock decays.

There are a few special favorites that still have a bit of that time-tunnel quality for me: Dracula (1931), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Captain Blood (1935), and today’s film —  Algiers (1938). Based on a French film called Pepe Le Moko, it tells the story of a suave and dashing French thief named…(wait for it)…Pepe le Moko. Pepe  is played by Charles Boyer, one of those homely-ish French dudes that still managed to pull legendary tail due to his sheer, overpowering, musky Frenchness. Pepe is the unofficial king of the Casbah district of Algiers (charmingly referred to as ‘the native quarter’ in the opening crawl).

See?

Our story begins with Commissioner Janvier (Paul Harvey), newly arrived from Paris on the trail of Pepe le Moko, insisting that the local yokels don’t know nothin’ about catchin’ no criminals.  The local yokels attempt to explain that the Casbah is very different from Paris, and requires a different approach to nabbing criminal masterminds. Janvier responds with, “Casbah? What’s that? Some kind of nut?” This — along with his big, blustery American accent — helpfully establishes him as the Stupid Authority Figure of this motion picture presentation. (The local yokels have British or European-ish accents, indicating their intellectual superiority to Janvier. Everyone’s supposed to be French-ish, though.)

The head of the local yokels, Chief Inspector Louvain (Walter Kingsford), gives Janvier — and us — an introduction to the mysterious Casbah. It’s another world, ‘an Oriental Riddle’,  ‘a melting pot for all the sins of the earth’.

Wretched hive of scum and villainy.

It’s a maze of alleys and courtyards and hovels, brimming with people from all over the world. For added ‘awesome old movie’ flavor, Louvain describes the ethnic diversity in the kind of uncomfortable terms your clueless-but-well-meaning Grandma might use: ‘The Chinese, loyal to Confucius’, ‘Gypsies with their fortune-telling and songs’, ‘Negroes from every corner of Africa’, ‘Sicilians and Spaniards, hot blooded and quick to hate’…you get the idea. Basically, he’s saying that the Casbah is a fucking awesome hive of scum and villainy, and Pepe is its king.

Enter Inspector Slimane (Joseph Calleia), a Smooth, Fez-Wearing Motherfucker. The Casbah is his beat, and he’s got a kind of friendly antagonist relationship with Pepe. Slimane explains to Janvier that as long as Pepe stays inside the Casbah, they will be unable to get him, because he’s too well protected. So he’s spent his time learning about Pepe le Moko. Janvier thinks Slimane’s just lazy.

Slimane:  When one can’t use guns, one must work with brains.
Janvier: I prefer guns!
Slimane: In your case, honest sir, such a preference is unavoidable.

Oh, snap! as the kids like to say these days. The dialogue is one of the great pleasures of this movie, thanks to James M. Cain. Anyway, Stupid Janvier waves his dick around and insists on taking a dozen cops into the Casbah that very evening. The local yokels all do that French shrug thing with the mouth and the eyebrows and let him have his way.

So the cops go barging into the Casbah. A snitch tells them Pepe’s at Grandpere’s place. Grandpere is a guy who deals in stolen goods, played by the Skipper’s dad Alan Hale. Grandpere, another Smooth Fez-Wearing Motherfucker, is the coolest guy in Pepe’s posse.

Monocle + Fez + Argyle Sweater = Pimp-Ass Mofo

In addition to a posse, Pepe’s got a lady — the passionate and paranoid Ines, played by the gorgeous Sigrid Gurie (who was known as ‘the Norwegian Garbo’, so it only makes sense to cast her as a native Algerian, right?) She’s not the smartest girl, but she is  steadfast and loyal to her man. In the Casbah, a woman’s only options are pretty much a.) whoring or b.) landing herself a tough and/or important dude who can protect and support and hopefully not beat her. Pepe is quite a catch for Ines, and she puts up with a lot of shit from him.

I gotta tell you, as (anti)hero / protagonists go, Pepe’s kind of a dick. He seems to enjoy patting people on the head and laughing indulgently,which is always a douche move. We are meant to see him as some brilliant and dashing thief, a hard man with the soul of a poet; he is introduced to us waxing rhapsodic about how only a particular kind of young golden-haired girl could properly wear a stolen pearl he is attempting to sell. But he comes across as a mere asshole. His charm is an entirely informed quality; he is NEVER charming, but everybody around him acts like he is.

And why wouldn’t he be a condescending dick who took his native girlfriend for granted? After all, he’s a white European dude. He’s naturally better than all of these primitive screwheads.  In fact, on that level, Pepe’s no different from Stupid Commissioner Janvier and his insistence that all these recalcitrant natives need is to see some good old European White Guy problem-solving in action. I know it’s a natural by-product of the times and the culture of colonialism and all that (Algeria was a French territory from 1830 to 1962), I’m just pointing it out in my capacity as an educated, slightly left-of-center 21st century chick. Watching Algiers as a girl, I thought Pepe was merely acting French — like Pepe le Pew, who was based on Boyer’s performance in this movie.

So there’s what passes for an exciting shootout in a 1938 movie between the cops and Pepe’s gang. Into this shootout walks Gaby (the lovely and amazing Hedy Lamarr, in her first Hollywood role).

Gaby appears to be going on one of those adventure tours through a bad neighborhood that a certain kind of clueless rich person likes to undertake from time to time. She and Pepe meet cute after she becomes separated from her companions and Slimane brings her into a safe house.  Pepe is enchanted by Gaby, who is very beautiful, and very decked out in expensive jewelry. Everyone smokes cigarettes and says witty, world-weary French-type stuff. Slimane and Pepe proclaim their eternal love for one another, by which I mean to say Slimane promises that he’s the only guy who’s ever going to arrest Pepe, and Pepe says he likes Slimane’s dishonest-looking face. Once the coast is clear and the flirting is done, Pepe takes his leave.

Slimane, the crafty bugger, decides to use Pepe’s infatuation with Gaby as part of a long con to lure Pepe out of the Casbah. It works like a charm, of course. He brings Gaby and her companions (minus her fat, sweaty, unpleasant fiance who doesn’t like natives) into the Casbah for an evening of drinks and such. Pepe joins them, and he and Gaby have an INSUFFERABLE conversation about Paris. Then they smoke and dance and fall in love and all that jazz.

Pretty. Vacant.

Now, I know I’m supposed to get swept away by the romance between Pepe and Gaby, but honestly? I already don’t like Pepe (and I have a hard time taking him seriously when his name is better suited to a small yappy dog than a full-grown jewel thief) and, as it turns out, Gaby’s not that awesome, either. Aside from their annoying mutual Paris fetish — imagine a couple of assholes from New York (or Texas) descending upon your humble hamlet, loudly proclaiming how not as awesome as New York (or Texas) this place is; now imagine they’re French — poor Gaby is bummed out about her upcoming nuptials with Chubby McSweatyFace.

This. Is. Stupid. And here’s why: Gaby is SPECTACULAR. And she knows it — she and her fiance openly  acknowledge to each other the direct relationship between her looks and his wallet. Mr. I Don’t Like Natives isn’t the only rich fish in the sea, is what I’m saying, so can it with the self-pity, sister. Throw his ass back and hook yourself another one and stop moping. In a culture where men are measured by money and women are measured by looks, settling for unpleasant husbands is the province of women much less beautiful than Hedley Hedy Lamarr.

In the original film, Gaby is the rich guy’s mistress, not his fiance. Which means they had an honest arrangement between two adults, not this “I’m a poor lamb to the slaughter” garbage. The change was due to the dumbshit morality codes imposed on Hollywood films at the time. Because mistresses are bad, but marrying for money smacks of integrity and moral fiber. The change to the character makes her unsympathetic, in my opinion. And that’s really unfortunate, because disliking the protagonists really takes the zing out of a love story for me.

Anyway, so like I said, Gaby and Pepe dance and smoke and fall in love — a love which will lead to Pepe’s doom. Not only is Gaby gorgeous and covered with pricey bling, she reminds Pepe of the home he gave up forever when he decided to come to Algeria to elude the authorities. The Casbah no longer feels like his safe haven; it feels like a trap. Despite all his rage, Pepe is still just a rat in a cage. A singing rat, no less.

In a scene that was probably not cheesy in 1938, Boyer sings a happy song as he shines his shoes. Everyone, including Ines, is like, “Whoa, Pepe, what’s up with the good mood?” and Pepe is like, “I have a date with the hottest chick ever.” This upsets Ines, as you can imagine, and ultimately drives her to cooperate with Slimane and seal Pepe’s fate.

Slimane, seeing that Pepe is an addict and Gaby is his opium, informs her that Pepe has been killed. Naturally, the news prompts her to go back to France with her icky fiance. Also naturally, when Pepe finds out Gaby is leaving, he is finally lured out of the Casbah. He goes to the pier, buys a ticket, and boards the ship that’s taking Gaby back to France. But Slimane and his men are there, and capture Pepe and take him off the ship.

Pepe asks to be allowed to watch the ship leave, and Slimane agrees. All of a sudden, handcuffed and all, Pepe starts running down the pier, yelling for Gaby like a fucking loon. She can’t hear him, he can’t catch the ship, he’s just running because that’s supposed to seem romantic and impetuous, I guess. The cops, who don’t have the same buddy-buddy relationship with Pepe that Slimane has, shoot him. Because he’s running away from them. Because he’s stupid in love. As Pepe lays dying, Slimane apologizes, explaining that the cops thought he was escaping. Pepe says that he already has escaped, and croaks with a beatific smile on his face.

Lame. Lame lame lame. In the original, Pepe kills himself when Gaby leaves. This makes sense; Pepe is a man accustomed to getting everything he ever wanted, but he will never be able to have his freedom, or the woman that he loves. Killing himself out of despair is the logical way to end this tragedy. Like Gaby’s shift from mistress to fiance, this change is likely due to those stupid Hollywood morality codes. It’s stupid and sucky and it hurts the movie.

But — just like all the quaint racism and sexism and whatnot — it also marks the movie as being of its particular time, which is why no matter how much shit I just talked about Algiers, it’s still a favorite time-tunnel movie for me. The film is in the public domain, which means that you can see it in its entirety for free at several different old movie websites and YouTube. None of the prints are very good, but James Wong Howe’s remarkable proto-film-noir cinematography is still evident.

I give Algiers three and a half Smooth Fez-Wearing Motherfuckers. Check it out if you enjoy self-parodying French accents, cigarettes, and Oriental Riddles.

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