Old movie review: “Algiers”

Watched a few more of my renter’s crime movies this weekend, and I want to comment briefly on a couple of them.

I watched “They Made Me a Criminal,” with John Garfield. I had the idea this was considered some kind of classic, and maybe it is. But it did not impress me.

The acting was consistently over the top. The character arcs (Busby Berkeley directed it, and it bears all the psychological insight of his average musical) follow plot points, but don’t seem to proceed from any actual change in the characters. In other words, the characters change their behavior because “it’s time for them to change,” but it’s hard to say why they do that from their own perspective. Also present are The Dead End Kids, who fill the sort of place in the film that a rap artist would fill in a movie today (and about as effectively), and even Claude Raines, as the Inspector Jauvert-like detective, nearly mugs his teeth out.

I hated it.

Raines gave a much more subdued, and effective, performance in his most famous role, that of Capt. Renault in “Casablanca.” We all know “Casablanca.” A perfect, small, jewel of a film that tells a tight, heartfelt story that somehow seems inevitable, inescapable, unforgettable. It sits in your memory and colors all your experience forever after.

But are you familiar with the film that inspired the makers of “Casablanca?” A film that also inspired a thousand bad French dialect imitations, chief among which was “Pepe le Pew” in the Warner Brothers cartoons?

That movie was “Algiers,” with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamar. I’d seen it in bits and pieces on TV years ago, but this was the first time I watched it from beginning to end, and I was completely enthralled.

Charles Boyer plays Pepe le Moko, a Parisian gangster who has fled to Algiers and is hiding in the native quarter called the Casbah, where the police dare not follow. He has made himself, for all practical purposes, king of the Casbah. He controls crime there, deals out justice, and enjoys the favors of a beautiful mistress (who seems to be a gypsy or something, though she was played by Sigrid Gurie, a Norwegian).

The French authorities are frustrated by their inability to lay hands on Pepe. Only Inspector Slimane (wonderfully played by Joseph Calleia), apparently a despised “half-caste,” understands Pepe’s essential weakness. Slimane is a patient man, and knows that he will catch Pepe, and even how he will do it.

Because he understands that Pepe cannot stay forever in the Casbah. That tortuous tangle of streets and stairways, where even the roads have walls, is in itself a kind of prison. Pepe’s confinement there is slowly, insidiously, driving him out of his mind. Driving him to forget his own safety. He looks out over the sea and dreams of Paris.

And it all comes to a head when he meets Gaby (Hedy Lamar), a gorgeous young woman from home who has come on holiday with her fiancé, a fat, unpleasant, but rich man whom she is marrying purely for his money. Pepe and Gaby see in each other the fulfillment of their mutual forbidden dreams.

There’s a scene at the end, when Pepe looks through a barred gate in the harbor and gets just a glimpse of Gaby on the ship’s deck, sailing away to her loveless marriage, and you see her through his eyes and it goes through your heart like a knife.

Old movies and old movie techniques can be ridiculous and dated, or sublime and timeless, depending on the skill and vision of the moviemakers. “Algiers” is a classic by any definition.

And no, he never says, “Come with me to the Casbah!”

Here’s a bit of trivia. Sigrid Gurie (refenced above), who played Pepe’s mistress, was the twin sister of Knut Haukelid, one of the leaders of the Norwegian resistance group that blew up the German heavy water operation at Vermork, Norway, thus denying important nuclear technology to the Nazis. Richard Harris’ character in the movie “Heroes of Telemark,” seems to have been based in part on Knut Haukelid.

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