A Prequel to CASABLANCA?

Are you a fan of the film CASABLANCA?

Do you have a pulse?

Are you worth knowing at all?

Depending on what day I’m asked, my reply to “What’s your favorite film?” is any one of about a half a dozen films, one of which is CASABLANCA. I could go on and on about the flick, but I’ll spare you the gush except on one point. Every time I see the ending of CASABLANCA, I wish there was more.

Duh-h.

Well, it’s Movie Night and tonight’s entrée is the 1937 French offering; PEPE LE MOKO. This is well worth a look. There is much about this flick that is reminiscent of CASABLANCA, though CASABLANCA was actually made five years later.

Claude Rains played Captain Renaud in CASABLANCA as despicable in action but sympathetic in heart…and as smart as Rick (Humphrey Bogart). In PEPE LE MOKO, we have an outsider policeman named Slimane. He is played wonderfully by an actor I know nothing about; Lucas Gridoux. He is despicable in action, despicable in heart…and as smart as Pepe Le Moko (Jean Gabin). Gridoux slithers. He insinuates. He invades people’s space. He smokes their cigarettes…and needs a light. I felt the need for a shower after each of his scenes. It’s a fine performance.

Pepe, a thief and all-around rascal, is perfectly free to live as he pleases in the Casbah. The police are incapable of touching him there. He is also imprisoned in the Casbah. His power and immunity evaporate should he leave his safe haven. He pines for freedom and a Paris he remembers with a street-by-street affection. Sound like someone else you know? Maybe someone named Rick?

His memories of Paris are re-ignited by Gaby, played luminously by Mireille Balin. I watched their scenes with the phrase “We’ll always have Paris” running in my heart.

The connection between these two films is further emphasized by the inclusion of Marcel Dalio in the casts. He plays an ill-fated messenger in PEPE, but is better remembered as the unfortunate croupier requesting additional funds in Rick’s Café Americaine in CASABLANCA. Mr. Dalio in real life was also married to the beautiful Madeleine Lebeau, who played Yvonne, Rick’s jilted local lover in CASABLANCA. Their desperate escape and winding journey from France to Portugal to Canada to the United States mirrors that of the refugees pictured in CASABLANCA. Marcel Dalio also appeared to good effect in LA GRANDE ILLUSION, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE RULES OF THE GAME, and CATCH-22. Interestingly enough, he also played Captain Renaud in the TV series of CASABLANCA (1955-56).

Finally, there’s Jean Gabin.

I really like watching Mr. Gabin work. I have seen him referred to as a French Humphrey Bogart and I can see why though I see him more as a French Jean Gabin. His work in PORT OF SHADOWS and LA BETE HUMAINE (both 1938) is compelling. Later in his career, in FOUR BAGS FULL (1956) he gives a performance full of surprise and relatively free of cliché. I’m a fan.

If you cherish CASABLANCA as I do, you will find much to delight you in PEPE LE MOKO.

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