A dreamer. An admirer of beauty. A thief.
“Where the blazing desert meets the blue Mediterranean, and modern Europe jostles ancient Africa. A stone’s throw from the modern city, the native quarter, known as the Casbah, stands like a fortress above the sea. Its population includes many tribes and races, drifters and outcasts from all parts of the world– and criminals who find this a safe hiding place from the long arm of the law. Supreme on these heights rules one man–Pepe le Moko–long wanted by the French police.”
1938’s Algiers inspired the well known ‘Play it again Sam’ film Casablanca, starring Charles Boyer as Pepe le Moko, the exotic Scandinavian Sigrid Gurie as Ines and the first film of who was later to be dubbed as the ‘most beautiful woman in Hollywood’, Hedy Lamarr playing Gaby. John Cromwell, who also did Of Human Bondage in 1934 with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard and Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake with Tyrone Power, directed Algiers from the screenplay by John Howard Lawson whose story was from Detective Ashelbe. Produced by Robert Wanger who was no stranger to the tales of the Orient with his first credit being nothing less than The Sheik in 1921 with Rudolf Valentino and Cleopatra in 1963 with Elizabeth Taylor marking his last but not least film credit.
Pepe le Moko was a notorious jewel thief who had escaped the French police, fleeing from Paris with a fortune in rocks and now living under the protection of the Casbah, of what officials call “A very hard nut to crack”, for two years. At the seemingly incomprehensible lack of efficiency from the Algerian police, a French official arrives from Paris with the explicit duty of arresting Pepe le Moko once and for all. This proves a more complicated task as the officials try to explain, “You can’t arrest a king in his own palace.” Algerian Inspector Slimane, who has befriended Pepe, explains “To arrest him in the Casbah, my distinguished colleague, would be simple, to get him out would be impossible…I flatter myself that I do a great deal in my humble way. I learn about Pepe, I know his habits, I study his weaknesses. When one can’t use guns one fight with brains.” Slimane is constantly around Pepe looking for ways to capture him.
He tells Pepe “I am the one who will catch you in the end…You’re important now because you’re free, once you’re behind bars people will forget all about you.” Pepe replies, “He’s funny, my friend Slimane, he looks normal, doesn’t he? But he has illusions of grandeur. He thinks he can arrest me…You know what I like about you, your face. Its the perfect face for your job. To look that false is almost the equivalent of being honest.” Pepe knows that Slimane would like to put him in prison, yet always calls him ‘friend’ and lets him know about him.
Our first image of Pepe is inspecting jewels and seeing his appreciation for beauty as he inspects jewels from the black market. Imagining a special type of blonde girl in pearls, his friend Grandpere says, “You and I have the same feeling, Pepe, for beauty”, Pepe continues, “I began life in a jewelry store,” “And when you left you took the store with you” “Yes, it became a habit. You know I dream about sitting down in Paris sometime and making a collection of things like these. Not just for myself, for people to see, in glass cases…” His appreciation for jewelry’s charm became such an obsession that Inspector Slimane knew it was his weakness. Which is why he knew that Pepe would fall for the beautiful French tourist, Gaby, when she visits the Casbah on one of her exotic travels with her rich fiancé and friends. Pepe’s weakness for rocks and Gaby’s ability to display wealth with an elegant Parisian flair was what would be his downfall as Slimane warns him “Better watch out Pepe, women will be the death of you.” Throughout the film Slimane is Pepe’s constant torture as Pepe knows that he is safe as long as he never leaves the Casbah, but Slimane finds the perfect use for Gaby, when he decides to lure Pepe out with his desire for her and his dream of returning to Paris.
Pepe’s other snooper is another friend, Regis who is also always around him and willing to betray him at any moment out of jealousy. As he makes a pact with the Algerian officials to capture Pepe le Moko through plotting to seize his true friend, Piero. The officials question if he will not settle a more expensive deal with Pepe. “I’m an informer, not a hypocrite-” says Regis, “It amuses me to see you sell your friends at bargain prices. You have a flare for business, Regis.” says Slimane laughing.
Through out the film Regis’ character is best described as Pepe defines him to Piero, “Did you ever see a clock that pointed to two and struck four when it is really a quarter past twelve. Well, you’ll find Regis is like that. He does anything too.” Piero however, does not listen, leading him to be apprehended and shot by the police.
After Gaby meets Pepe earlier on in the film, she does nothing but wonder about him and plans to go back to see him. As she finds herself more into Pepe and less into her fiance, she regrets accepting marriage to him because of his wealth, as her friend reminds her of her good fortune, “…marrying a man who adores you and can give you anything in the world you ever dreamed about.” She responds, “That’s my trouble, I’m such a fool, I go dreaming about the wrong things.” Pepe and Gaby fall in love eventually leading to complications as Pepe’s lover native to the Casbah, called Ines, becomes very jealous as she realizes Pepe does not want her anymore.
Ines however will not let him go and decides, through multiple attempts, to keep him says, “I am the Casbah, I’ll keep you. Just try to get away and you’ll find out. It’s funny for the police coming to arrest you. You’re in prison already. You’re in the Casbah with a wall around you. There’s nothing else, you’ll never have anything else. I’m glad there’s no France for you, No Paris, No Boulevard…” Ines can’t stand the thought of Pepe leaving her for Gaby and Paris, which leads her to betray him at the end as he tries to escape the Casbah on the boat for France that Gaby is on.
As he boards the ship and is looking for Gaby he gets captured and arrested. In the end we are left with a tragic ending and a heart-breaking ‘almost-there-and-now-you’re-really-not’ resolution as Slimane tells him “I’m sorry Pepe, they thought you were trying to escape” and his final response being “I have, my friend.”