Classic Film Guide

Algiers (1938) - full review!

Directed by John Cromwell, with a screenplay by John Howard Lawson (Blockade (1938)), this above average romance drama stars Charles Boyer as Pépé le Moko, a notorious criminal who's safe as long as he remains in the problematic (for the authorities) area of the titled North African city called the Casbah. Just so you know, Boyer never utters "come with me to the Casbah" the way Chuck Jones’s skunk "Pépé le Pew" (and other animated characters) used to say. The Casbah or "old city" forms the upper part of Algiers, replete with labyrinthine passageways and a 16th century walled fortress. It's filled with nefarious persons who can easily escape the police et al by traveling above the streets from terrace to terrace where outsiders are, not only not welcome but, likely to be killed! The film's Art Direction and James Wong Howe's (his first) Cinematography (which has a sloppy, almost newsreel feel to it in the beginning; but hang in there, it gets better) received Oscar nominations, as did Boyer and veteran Supporting Actor Gene Lockhart (his only), whose character exhibits many of the attributes "we've" grown to love over the years - nice to see that, unlike many others in his profession, he actually received some recognition for them.

Wanted by police the world over, Pépé (Boyer) has been "holed up" in the Casbah for two years such that his oasis, from the authorities that hope to lure him from within its confines to arrest him, has become his prison without bars. A frustrated law officer from Paris, Janvier (Paul Harvey) comes to Algiers in hopes of penetrating Pépé’s adoptive home and arresting him. Janvier just thinks the Algerian authorities are incompetent, especially when he learns that the local detective Slimane (Joseph Calleria) walks among Pépé and his entourage, conversing with the criminal, daily. He soon learns otherwise, when he ventures into the Casbah with twelve officers and fails to capture his prey. Pépé is protected by the Casbah's general population, but also maintains a group of "bodyguards" that includes a jeweler (Alan Hale, dependable as always & making an impact despite his limited screen-time), a "green" youngster Pierrot (Johnny Downs), a steady girl Ines (Sigrid Gurie), a heavy (Stanley Fields), and a couple of others who never speak. Another, Regis (Lockhart), hangs around the card playing group, but isn't really part of the inner circle because Pépé doesn't trust him. And for good reason, given the fact that Regis turns out to be an informer whose efforts with the police fail to catch Pépé on at least two occasions. But Regis gets his comeuppance for his betrayal involving Pierrot.

A third of the way into the film Pépé meets a visitor to his community, a beautiful woman named Gabrielle (Hedy Lamarr), or Gaby for short. She's from his hometown of Paris and is bejeweled with gifts from her fiancé, with whom she's traveling along with another couple. Pépé is not only entranced by her hardware, which also interests his heavy Carlos (Fields), but also by her software (it's Hedy Lamarr, after all!). They form a "kinship" which upsets Ines, naturally making her jealous, which will later lead to unintended consequences for Pépé. Gaby's fiancé, who knows she doesn't love him and (at one point) utters a racial slur about the Africans, is powerless to keep her from visiting the Casbah and Pépé. The beefy, dim-witted Carlos can't understand why Pépé’s interest in separating Gaby from her jewelry has waned as the two's romantic relationship develops; the "couple" pretends to take in various Paris landmarks during their afternoon affairs.

As a contrast to Janvier, Slimane chooses to use his brains over police brawn to learn as much as he can about Pépé, developing a relationship that he hopes will serve him one day. In fact, he's got a great putdown line to Janvier (early in the film). Slimane tells Pépé confidently that he'll get him in the end, and correctly predicts that it will be a woman that leads to his undoing.

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