Algiers (1938)

Here's the thing about watching old movies: A lot of them stink. A lot are forgettable. Often I give up and click off.

But many movies from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s are fun, even the bad ones — and many aren't bad at all. Some are quite good, and once in a great while, there’s a old movie that refuses to disappoint.

When you sink all the way into an old movie, and begin to realize that it's something special, you don't say anything out loud, because that's like telling the pitcher he's got a no-hitter going. But to yourself you're saying, Hey, this movie really is a classic. It's been a long time since that happened, but it happened last night, as I was watching something I’d never heard of, called Algiers (1938).

It's set in that North African city, where a visiting detective from Paris impatiently demands that local police arrest an internationally-wanted criminal named Pepe le Moko. The cops know where he lives, right down to his street address, so why hasn't he been arrested?

It’s because Pepe lives in the city’s Casbah neighborhood, where there are so many lawbreakers and delinquents and scruffy types, the police can’t arrest anyone without being attacked and probably killed themselves. The challenge, then, will be getting Pepe to leave the Casbah and come into the main part of the city, where cops can arrest him.

Pepe le Moko
Pepe (Charles Boyer) is the bad guy, but he’s also the movie’s main protagonist. He’s tough but soft-spoken, elegant, fearless, commanding but not cruel — and when he’s in love he briefly sings, all of which makes him one of my favorite bad guys ever in the movies.

"Did you ever see a clock that pointed to two and struck four when it's really quarter-past-twelve? Well, your friend is like that. He doesn't ring true."

Inspector Slimane
His nemesis is Inspector Slimane (Joseph Calleia), a local cop who knows the Casbah and knows Pepe, but also knows he can’t arrest him there. Complicated motives are much more realistic than heroic good guys and monstrous bad guys — Pepe is not a monster, and the Inspector is not a hero. 

"I thought I'd figured all the moves, but I miscalculated. I didn't think of you."

Slimane is supposed to be ethnic, but he’s played by a white actor wearing a turban, which is how Hollywood did diversity in the 1930s. Let's celebrate the fake multiculturalism, though, as Slimane is smart and a smartass. “By his looks, he’s too lazy to make an arrest,” a racist insinuation from the visiting French detective, but Slimane has a slick burn a few moments later. All through the movie, he's clever and almost poetic, and likable despite being police. (Yeah, I don't like cops. Arrest me.)

In many movies, a criminal’s relationship with his girlfriend is simply ‘there’. In Algiers, though, there are tender moments between Pepe and his ladyfriend, Ines (Sigrid Gurie). You can see why she likes him, and that he likes her, too.

"It's not what you deserve. It's what you want."

But he likes Gaby (Hedy Lamarr) more, which might lead to trouble. Gaby is a golddigger and Pepe is a jewel thief, and she has jewels and he money, but it’s also clear that the jewels and money aren't what draws them together. She’s smart, and she doesn’t hold his criminality against him, but she’s annoyed that she can only see him in the Casbah.

        "What did you do before?"
                "Before what?"
        "Before ... the jewels?" 
                "I wanted them."

And with those ingredients in the pot, the movie stirs and simmers, then bubbles. You'll laugh, you'll cry, but kiss no bucks goodbye, because it's streaming for free on YouTube.

So many memorable moments! 

• When Pepe first sees Hedy Lamarr, his eyes go to her bracelet and necklace before noticing her face.
• The entire sequence when Pepe sniffs out a rat among his cohorts.
• The player-piano murder.
• Pottery tossed at an annoying beggar.
• The breakup scene between Gaby and her unloved fiancé.
• Young gangster in love, singing as he polishes his shoes.
• The moment when Ines understands that Pepe is in love, but not with her.
• “I just came to tell you it’s Thursday.”
• The internal montage of Paris, as Pepe walks.

Screenplay by John Howard Larson, who co-founded the Writers' Guild of America, wrote several good movies and a few great ones, and was blacklisted for it. Additional dialogue by James M Cain, the greatest noir author — The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, etc. 

Here's the tiniest thing, something I didn't even notice until my third visit to Algiers: Whenever Pepe is talking gangster stuff with his gangster staff, a certain henchman is standing in the background, leaning against the wall, or sitting on the floor. You see him all through the movie, but he never says anything or does anything except be there — and smile when things get violent.

The movie opens with a s-l-o-w crawl of unnecessary text on the screen. Slow, meaning you can count to five while waiting for the next few words to appear, and unnecessary, because everything that's explained in the on-screen text is explained again, and explained better, in the first scene. Skip the words at the beginning if you wish, but after that, Algiers is where you want to be.



← PREVIOUS          NEXT →


  1. Captain HampocketsJuly 30, 2021 at 6:39 AM

    Unrelated, you might find this interesting:


    1. Beyond interesting, thank you. Everyone knows the Internet Archive (Wayback Machine) but I didn't know they had an archive of on-paper zines.

      Have you poked around there at all? I've spent half an hour, and the most unexpected thing I've seen is something called Zine Guide, with "thousands of zine reviews." It was apparently a better-funded competitor to our Zine World, but if I'd ever heard of it before I've completely forgotten it.

  2. Captain HampocketsJuly 30, 2021 at 2:00 PM

    I looked a little bit. The user interface is fucking dogshit, sadly. I saw a few things I recognize, mainly big names - MaximumRockNRoll, Crap Houd, etc.

    I do, maybe, vaguely rmember Zine Guide. It launched after ZW, IIRC.

    1. It looks and reads so much like Factsheet 5, I wonder if it was started by someone from Seth's staff there. Full of ads right from the start, too.


The site's software sometimes swallows comments. For less frustration, send an email and I'll post it as a comment.