' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Algiers (1938)

Friday, October 04, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Algiers (1938)

“And I start to tell the story. 'Uh, it's about Casablanca, and the refugees are there, and they're trying to get out, and there's letters of transit, and a fella has them, and the cops come and get him' ---- And I realize I'm talking about twenty minutes and I haven't even mentioned the character of (Ingrid) Bergman. So I say, 'Oh, what the hell! It's going to be a lot of s**t like ‘Algiers.’” – Julius Epstein 



It’s nigh impossible to discuss “Algiers” (1938) without also mentioning “Casablanca”, the stone cold 1942 classic that, as the lead-in quote from “Casablanca” scribe Epstein goes to show, was not simply based on an unproduced play but influenced heavily by the lesser known “Algiers.” It’s nigh impossible to miss the striking similarities, right down to the ocean liner tagging in for the plane at the end, but discussing them overmuch would distract from the things “Algiers” does differently. It’s not “Casablanca” – what is? – but that is not simply on account of the issue of quality (though “Algiers” quality is significant in its own right) – it’s not “Casablanca” because while it is romanticized, its ultimate worldview is just a bit bleaker. There will not be the beginning of any beautiful friendships here, merely the ending. Not that our fall guy doesn’t go out with a smile on his face.

Really there are two characters central to director John Cromwell's “Algiers” – the rhapsodically named French jewel thief Pepe le Moko (Charles Boyer, nominated for an Oscar) and the Casbah, the maze-like native-inhabited quadrant of Algiers, “a melting pot of all the human sins of this earth.” This is what we are told in an opening monologue functioning as a travelogue to give us our Casbah-bearings since that is where we will spend most of the movie since that is where Pepe is able to remain hidden. Even though he’s essentially out in the open. Which is what frustrates the requisite American detective (he prefers guns to brains – he’s AMERICAN) who is called in to supplement local Inspector Slimane’s (Joseph Calleia) investigation.

In Slimane you can very much see Claude Rains’ Renault, the German Captain in “Casablanca” who functions as both friend and foe to Bogart’s Rick Blaine. Ultimately, though, Renault leans more toward friend whereas Slimane, theoretically working as friend and foe to Pepe, ultimately leans more toward foe. He’s gentlemanly – it’s a charismatically laid-back performance from Calleia – but he’s a gentleman with, as they say, a job to do. The American may not like his slow-burn tactics, but no one respects J.O.B. dedication like an American who prefers guns to brains.

Into the Casbah, however, must wander a femme fatale, and so she does in the form of Gaby, a beguiling tourist on loan from ol’ Paris. She is played by Hedy Lamarr. This was Lamarr’s first American film and it’s not difficult to see a star being born. Her smile feels startlingly authentic, as if just before every take someone off camera made some crack she found amusing, and she and Boyer create a viable chemistry that gets great mileage from its longing. One scene in particular finds the two of them seated in the forefront of a shot at a café table with a blathering American couple. As the couple blathers, Lamarr and Boyer ignore the blather to look toward one another. They don’t touch, they don’t even smile, they just look……and it burns with the fire of a thousand suns.


In the end, though, "Algiers" belongs not to Ms. Lamarr nor even to the Casbah but to Boyer. The performance kicks off light as a feather but it doesn’t take long for Boyer to delicately demonstrate that Pepe is plugging the dam with all that jauntiness. He's a thief, of course, a killer, to be sure, but also a bit of a jackass. There is a second female in this story, Ines (Sigrid Gurie), who is, more or less, Pepe’s gal. She loves Pepe and is loyal to Pepe. Alas, Pepe only loves Ines when it pleases him and is not loyal to her at all. He’s seeing Gaby, as established, but it’s not like he’s seeing her on the sly. He’s pretty brazen. Heck, at one point he TELLS Inez he’s going to see Gaby. Perhaps he deserves his inevitable comeuppance.

Gaby is thankfully provided one scene where she takes possession of herself by explaining to her fiancé in no uncertain terms why she’s really marrying him and that she will do as she pleases. Essentially, though, her character exists to tempt Pepe, to act as the ethereal representation of the boulevards and cafes of his homeland for which he so desperately craves. Thus, it is on her account that he becomes enamored the prospect of at long last setting foot outside the Casbah and following her back to Paris.

Not that he makes it. But that goes without saying. But it also stands to say that he very much does make it there courtesy of the film's most sumptuous shot, a dreamlike vision of the Eiffel Tower appearing in the foreground as he makes his hopeless break. The image is his respite, the end is his escape.

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