The two best films ever made about The Casbah also happen to be two of the best films ever made.
Pépé Le Moko and The Battle of Algiers make such similar use of the fabled old Algiers neighborhood that there are a few exterior rooftop shots in both films that seemed to me to have been taken from almost the same place. Each of the films has a gritty black and white graininess that somehow emphasizes the otherworldly danger that exists for the protagonists. But while Pépé Le Moko is a romantic gangster pic featuring Jean Gabin as perhaps the most appealing jewel thief in the history of cinema, The Battle of Algiers is a political film that, justifiably famous in its own time, is now remarkably of our time as well.
The first time we see Pépé Le Moko, we see only his hands. But it’s clear as the camera pans upward that this fellow is one of the best-dressed men anywhere, much less The Casbah. When it finally arrives at a full shot of Jean Gabin’s face, we also learn that Pépé Le Moko is a man of rugged but beautiful looks and a rogue of very significant interest. Gabin was a major star of French cinema in the thirties and afterwards, unusually so given his very large and bulbous nose. But, as with Clarke Gable and his enormous ears, you don’t notice Gabin’s imperfection because of the intense sensual authority he brings with him even when he’s not doing much of anything on-screen.
Gabin simply fills the role of Pépé Le Moko, an intrepid thief who has had to leave his beloved Paris under trying circumstances, and is now hiding from the French police in the complicated, turbulent warren of The Casbah in Algiers. He is the personification of Ernest Hemingway’s famous definition of courage, that it is “grace under pressure”. He also has a very humorous glint in his eye, especially when he’s engaged in slang badinage with his pals or with the police inspector Slimane who, although Pépé’s pursuer, also thinks of him as a friend, a man to be respected. Pépé is as well a great lover. One of the Arab men in the quarter says of him that the day Pépé Le Moko dies, there will be five thousand widows in The Casbah.
One of these widows will be Tania, an Arab girl of questionable morals who is in love with Pépé. Played by the French singer Fréhel, Tania is a woman of mercurial emotions who will do anything to save her relationship with the thief. She’s a wonderful character, so remarkably beautiful and intense in her feelings that one can both understand Pépé’s attraction to her and his need to maintain a distance. Given the right circumstances, this woman could destroy a man like Pépé. He doesn’t realize it, but she is his match.
Another woman does show up, the be-jeweled French aristocrat Gaby who, slumming one night with friends in The Casbah, meets and immediately falls in love with Pépé, Played by Mireille Balin, she is icily reserved and very upper-crust. But you can see just in the way she looks at Pépé that he fascinates her. Gaby’s eyes glisten with pleasure with every glance she takes at him. It’s Pépé’s pursuit of her that brings about his undoing and eventual capture, with the help of Tania, by the police.
The film was directed by Jules Duvivier with a script notable for its very hard-boiled and sarcastic wit. Duvivier also wanted a gritty look to his setting, and the interior shots all have a very authentic feel for anyone who has ever walked in an old Arab “suk” neighborhood of winding passageways, stairways leading who knows where, doors shut to anyone outside and the feeling of dangerous intrigue just beyond the next turn in the alley. Duvuvier’s Casbah is actually a set constructed for the film, but its authenticity makes you forget that. Light and dark clash in this Casbah, literally, the lighting a precursor to the later grimy underworld of film noir.
Pépé owns this neighborhood, and when he steps out of it in search of Gaby, he is immediately vulnerable. The Casbah is romantic and threatening, the best place for the protection of this classy criminal’s flaunting of the law. The bright light of day outside The Casbah—and his desire for Gaby—bring about his destruction.
The Battle of Algiers is another matter, although it was indeed shot in its entirety in Algiers and The Casbah. There are thieves in this movie, too. Indeed one of them is the leading man, Ali la Pointe, a rugged-looking youth played by an amateur Algerian actor named Brahim Hagiag. But Ali is no picturesque rogue. He’s a two-bit criminal, not worth much, who ends up in jail for a botched crime. While serving his sentence, he begins to learn about the terrorist insurgency (an actual event that lasted from 1954 to 1962) against the French colonialists in Algiers, and the police force that protects them. The National Liberation Front, or FLN, is run by a commander named El-hadi Jafar, who is also played by an amateur actor. But this actor is special, because his actual name is Saadi Yacef, who was himself one of the leaders of the real insurgency that eventually succeeded in ridding Algeria of the French.
In prison, Ali becomes a confirmed FLN man, and once out, one of the first things he does is to kill an Algerian pimp for whom he used to work. The FLN views the criminal underworld as a kind of enforcer for the French against the Algerian poor, so they must be gotten rid of. Ali also becomes involved in the assassination of French policemen and in arbitrary bombings in the French quarter. As superbly played by Hagiag, Ali la Pointe is a young, foolish man, almost a simpleton, who becomes a hardened soldier in so relentless a way that he ultimately terrifies you.
There is only one professional actor in this film, a Frenchman named Jean Martin, who plays Colonel Mathieu, in charge of the 10th Para-Division, French army paratroopers who are brought to defeat the insurgency. Martin’s portrayal is memorable because the colonel is ultimately a technocrat, although a murderous one. He analyzes the situation clearly and coldly, and moves his men about the city with intent precision and murderous force. He wears fatigues throughout and a pair of air force–style sunglasses that make it difficult to see his eyes. But the sunglasses are perfect because you can see the colonel’s eyes and, despite the emotional distancing that the glasses symbolize, his eyes are sinister beyond belief.
This is a very dangerous man. Colonel Mathieu speaks in a monotone. He is always in control of himself. He never falters. At one point (speaking quite softly, actually) he says “The problem, as usual, is first the enemy.” He pauses a moment, then continues. “Second, how to destroy him.” You had better listen, because Colonel Mathieu will succeed.
Here too, the film is shot in grainy black and white in so physical a way that it almost appears as a genuine documentary of actual events. The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, has such a clear understanding of street battles that the American edition of this film contained a disclaimer that “not one foot” of newsreel film was used in the production. The portrayal of the terrorists and their tactics, especially effective in this urban situation, made the film into something of a bête noire in France, where it was considered to have molly-coddled the Algerian enemy. (It was released just five years after the expulsion of the French from Algiers.)
What’s interesting here is that the French and Colonel Mathieu actually win the battle of Algiers. They hunt down Ali la Pointe and his commander El-hadi Jafar who, with a few others, are hiding in a space between the walls of a Casbah apartment. The terrorists refuse to come out, and are killed by a detonation planted in the apartment by Colonel Mathieu’s men. They don’t stand a chance.
But the Algerians did get rid of the French eventually. This film was based on an account of the insurgency that was written by Saadi Yacef, the actor who plays the doomed El-hadi Jafar, while a prisoner in a French jail. After the French defeat, Yacef, now an Algerian government minister, approached Pontecorvo and, with government assistance, suggested he make the film. It won the Venice Film Festival Grand Prize and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
One ironic occurrence in the film’s influential history is that in 2003, it was given a special screening by the U.S. Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at The Pentagon. It was thought to be a corrective to those who might think that the then-current situation in Iraq had no precedent. One wonders if the people in The Pentagon who saw this very fine film ever heeded its ultimate warning of what can happen to implacable colonialist forces who do not understand the people they are colonizing.