Inventing Africa: Casablanca and Pépé le Moko
Exploring the colonial fantasies of the surprisingly similar French and American classics
Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko and Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca were released a little less than six years apart, but it was an eventful six years. The world was spinning fast between early 1937 and the fall of 1942, and the French colonial empire that Pépé takes for granted would, by the time of Casablanca, be the de facto property of Hitler’s Germany, under the titular authority of the collaborationist Vichy government.
Despite this world-historical sea change, there is a curious kinship that exists between these two films about romantic anti-heroes in North African exile — a matter of circumstance in the case of Jean Gabin’s Pépé, a fugitive in Algiers who dreams of Paris; self-imposed in the case of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, an American soldier of fortune trying to forget the City of Lights and its painful romantic memories by running a gin joint. They are, to begin with, both eminently quotable films, which goes some way towards creating a cult object — it creates a code language of sorts, and adheres a movie to the memory the way a particular passage from a song might. (And as it happens, the sentiments stirred by song play a key role in both films: Fréhel’s evocation of old Montmartre in Pépé, Dooley Wilson’s performances of “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca.)
Gabin and Bogart were both well-known quantities before these movies, so it would not be accurate to call the roles “star-making,” but each film makes sure to create a big drumroll for its lead before their onscreen introduction. Duvivier, aged 40 when Pépé was released, was working from a novel by “Detective Ashelbé” (the pseudonym of one Henri La Barthe), adapted for the screen by Jacques Constant, with journalist Henri Jeanson contributing flavourful argot to the dialogue. They conspire to give Gabin's Pépé a big build-up via the opening scene in an Algiers police station, where local authorities explain to visiting flics from the French mainland how the infamous hoodlum, who is still wanted for a bank job in Toulon, has managed to evade their grasp for some two years. The local cops explain that Pépé has the cover of the Casbah, the labyrinthine central city of Algiers, which is described in evocatively Orientalist terms:
The above is given in the manner of a warning, but it in many ways it doubles as an invitation, painting the Casbah as an alluring spot for exotic intrigues; some of this language (“There’s not one Casbah, but hundreds”) is very close to that of a tourist brochure inducement.
In a way, the makers of Pépé le Moko were inviting audiences on a domestic vacation. When the film appeared in cinemas, Mediterranean Algeria was governed as an integral part of France, and the larger country had been under French rule for over a century (when the hotheaded Parisian detective in Pépé suggests a raid on the Casbah, his local equivalent quips “Algeria was already taken by Marshal Bugeaud,” referring to the first Governor General of the territory); the centennial very nearly corresponded with the six-month Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931, which celebrated France’s so-called mission civilisatrice in Africa and Southeast Asia. But in Pépé’s atmospheric monologue, the Casbah is located as an island within the geographical expanse of “Greater France”: ancient, unpacified, a liminal zone.
Pépé le Moko is a product of a colonial culture that expresses pride of possession through touristic rubbernecking, but it also offers a commentary on that very culture. Pépé’s well-ordered existence is disturbed by the appearance of Gaby (Mireille Balin), a posh Parisian who visits the Casbah in the company of some well-heeled thrill-seekers only to find herself taken by the raffishly debonair Pépé. The romantic dynamic at work here is something akin to the various retellings of the romance between “King of the Jungle” Tarzan and young Jane Porter: at a moment when interracial romance was rarely seen on screen (and that between a white woman and a man of any other race even less), we have the white man who’s “gone native” as a kind of substitute Other. (William Wellman’s 1929 Chinatown Nights anticipates Pépé in this regard, as uptown New York society gal Florence Vidor is sidetracked on a coach tour of scenic and seedy downtown localities and takes up with Wallace Beery’s Chuck Riley, a white heavy who mixes with the local Tong gangs like he’s one of their own.)
It is a shared assumption of these texts that the white man carves out his place at the top of the food chain in whatever environment he’s dropped, as indeed Pépé has — though I hesitate to overplay the racial element here, for Gabin as gangster is always an aristocrat of the underworld, in Pigalle as in the Casbah, and save for a moment where he drunkenly inserts himself into a punch-up for the pure pleasure of hitting something, he conducts himself in the neighbourhood as a good and respectful small businessman.
In point of fact Pépé le Moko, though it incorporates some location work, was largely filmed on studio sets designed in Joinville by Jacques Krauss, who renders the rooftops of Algiers as a glorious Cubist confusion, while the inhabitants of the multiracial Casbah are portrayed by European actors (the Romanian-born Lucas Gridoux as Inspector Slimane, for example).
Pépé le Moko went a long way to cementing Gabin’s star status in France, and internationally it drew sufficient attention to warrant a 1938 Hollywood remake, Algiers, directed by John Cromwell and starring Charles Boyer, who failed to efface the memory of his predecessor. While he was adept at playing sinister, Boyer was perhaps too much the boulevardier sophisticate to play the hood, better suited to material like the 1941 Hold Back the Dawn (scripted by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and directed by Mitchell Leisen), in which he plays a suave Bucharest gigolo fleeing the recent implosion of Europe, who makes his way to the Mexican border and proposes to enter the United States via an advantageous marriage.
The refugee issue was at this time a hot, ripped-from-the-headlines subject, as Europeans fled the war that was engulfing their continent by the tens of thousands. Among these were Duvivier and Gabin, who arrived in Hollywood in 1940, though Gabin would cut his stay short and return to Europe to serve with de Gaulle’s Free French forces. (His Pépé co-star Balin, meanwhile, took another path: in 1940 she was at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, performing in Augusto Genina’s pro-Franco picture Cadets of the Alcazar; during the French Occupation she took up with Birl Desbok, an Austrian Wehrmacht officer, an association which would lead to her being brutally treated after the Liberation.)
The atmosphere of diplomatically advantageous liaisons is very much present in Casablanca, a film which, like Hold Back the Dawn, conjures up the purgatorial air of an immigrant way station en route to deliverance in the promised land of the US. The film begins with a famous prelude (courtesy of Warner Bros. montage master and future director Don Siegel) which depicts hordes of emigrés pouring into the Moroccan city — which was too a French colonial holding — on an inconvenient but necessary stopover on the way to Lisbon, the last free point of disembarkation for the New World. (This sequence is convincing enough that one is scarcely inclined to remember that historically, Casablanca served no such purpose during the war years.)
Although Pépé le Moko had played in US theatres prior to 1942 — and this despite the best efforts of Algiers producer Walter Wanger, who had tried to have all prints of the Duvivier film destroyed to prevent any competition with his virtual shot-for-shot remake — it’s unlikely that Bogart gave much thought to Gabin when approaching the character of Rick Blaine, as he had been fine-tuning his screen persona as a Warner Bros. contract player for a solid decade.
Bogart and Gabin were both grinders, only breaking into top billing when they were in their mid-thirties, and neither was exactly an ingénue before that (though Bogart famously claimed that he started his stage career as a juvenile lead in society comedies, bounding on stage and inquiring “Anyone for tennis?”). They were compact men on the shortish end of medium height, which tends to play well on screen: they were tall enough to not seem like a pushover, and at just about the right level to look a woman in heels straight in the eyes. (“Bogart was a giant,” said his sometime director Howard Hawks, “but he was a little man physically.”) As much reactors as actors, Bogart and Gabin could recede from a scene and still dominate it, cutting unexpectedly compelling figures when just leaning back and figuring the angles. For better or worse, they became masculine archetypes that would fascinate generations, splitting the difference between tough and tender. (Gabin threw a better punch on screen; Bogart, improbably given his unfriendly, curled mouth, was the more ardent kisser.)
Allowing that Bogart and Gabin were similar but distinct phenomena that independently cropped up on either side of the Atlantic, it should be said that there are conscious or unconscious parallels between Bogart’s Rick and the sentimental cynic Pépé. Like Pépé, Rick is a thoroughgoing operator who knows everyone in town and is known by all. In both films we see our heroes effortlessly working the souk marketplaces of their respective towns: Pépé doesn’t need to reach for his wallet when he plucks meat off a kebab skewer; a silk merchant trying to fleece Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) with tourist prices suddenly starts hacking his prices down when Rick shows up at her elbow. When first encountered, both men are seen to collect women easily, though both, in due time, will show themselves to have a vulnerable side. They both, before the credits roll, lose their girls in dramatic fashion, with Pépé losing his life as well, after being betrayed to the cops by the jealous Inès (Line Noro), a Roma girl who he’s kept around on the side. (In this double cross there are shades of the death of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Bogart acolyte Michel in Godard’s Breathless after being betrayed by Jean Seberg’s Patricia, in a film which acts as a kind of summing up of the Gabin-Bogart cult of flip, fatalistic cool.)
Rick and Pépé are nostalgics at heart: both have a soft spot for Paris, and at least a part of Rick is still a Manhattan homeboy (how else to explain the boastfulness of his sly, menacing advice to Conrad Veidt’s Nazi Major Strasser: “There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade”). But where Pépé is, by letter of the law, a prisoner in his own country, Rick is a true exile, a man without a state who identifies his nationality as “drunkard.” Pépé’s Casbah is a very different idea of a North African city than Rick’s Casablanca — “idea” because both are, ultimately, studio inventions. While the former retains a distinctly indigenous character, the latter (filled with Free French, Germans, and refugees from all corners of the world) is a polyglot nowhere, a proxy battlefield in which the European war can be played out on a smaller scale — an “Interzone,” to borrow the nickname that William S. Burroughs gave to Morocco’s cosmopolite capital Tangier.
There is an understated irony at work in Pépé’s longing for the Gobelins of his youth, an irony underscored by the lyrics to Fréhel’s song, which mourns “the demolition of old houses” and the disappearance of the dance halls and the Moulin Rouge on place Blanche. The song is, in effect, a eulogy for a working-class Paris that no longer exists in the form being remembered — a place which, in fact, might have been closer in its rough-and-tumble spirit to the Casbah where Pépé resides than to the unfamiliar Paris he longs to return to, a city whose boulevards will soon enough ring out with the sound of German jackboots.
As for the Casbah, it would be a long time until another film came along to evoke it with such mythic dimension, though this would be a very different kind of myth. The film in question was Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), and the Casbah, this time, was the real one: no longer an exotic retreat for brooding white heroes, but a site of insurgency against its colonial rulers, a place busy making heroes of its own.