In 1938 Charles Boyer first lured Hedy Lamarr to the Casbah in a film called Algiers. Since then the suave Frenchman has become permanently associated with the exotic atmosphere of Algiers' native quarter. Algiers, however, was only a mellowed version of the French production Pepe le Moko, and Boyer only a romantic substitute for a more brutal Pepe, played by Jean Gabin.
In a melodrama of this sort, Gabin's realistic touches provide an ironic contrast to Pepe's fanciful vision of freedom. The depraved gangster, trapped by both police and conscience, is forced to hide in the friendly surroundings of the native quarter. Ultimately his love for freedom and for the jeweled Gaby draws him from the safety of the Casbah to the dangers of the city. But even Pepe's love is evil, for Gaby is the mistress of another man. Gabin plays the part frankly and sadistically, yet he ended on a note of pathos, emotional enough for melodrama, and ironic enough to escape sentimentality.
A theme of grim reality punctuates both the filming and the acting. Director Julien Duvivier lets his camera dwell at length upon the filth and vice of the Casbah. He delights in picturing squalid, old women sitting in doorways or sunning themselves upon the endless steps and terraces of the native quarter. Occasionally, however, the emotional implications of both setting and plot become cloying. A scene in which a fat hag tearfully recalls her past success on the stage turns maudlin, while the murder of an informer has all the qualities of an old time serial.
These episodes are the exception in a film which skillfully used reality to supplement melodrama. Although opportunities for exaggeration and heroic scenes are available, Mireille Balin as Gaby, and Line Noro as the jealous native Ines, help preserve the film's subdued brutality not only in their acting, but in their hard, brittle appearance. The result is the original Casbah adventure, still perhaps the most exciting in a long series of copies.