Algiers by John Cromwell

Cinema del Popolo presents Film Noir by Bernie Dowling.

Bernie pic

WHEN I was a young boy, American television comedians would try to make me laugh by saying, in a poor foreign accent, “Come with me to ze Casbah.” I could not pick the accent as French, I thought the Casbah was some nightclub and I had never heard of the 1938 film noir, Algiers which was mistakenly attributed as the source of the quote,” Come with me to ze Casbah”. That’s right. Just as Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman never said, “Play it again, Sam” in the 1942 noir Casablanca, Frenchman Charles Boyer never invited Hollywood debutant Hedy Lamarr to come wit’ zim to ze Casbah. There is little doubt Casablanca owes some of its success to Algiers on which it was partly modelled so it is amusing each film produced a misquote which travelled down the generations.

North Africa – Casablanca and Algiers

Algiers, the capital of Algeria, was a French colonial possession for 100 years when the 1938 film was made, Morocco became a French “protectorate” in 1912. Algiers is on the Mediterranean Sea and Casablanca is a port on the Atlantic Ocean. The main religion of the Native populations of both countries was Islam. Both being close to Europe (across the sea to Spain) and on major trade routes, they were strategic ports in terms of trade and defence. Although Europeans had come to outnumber Muslims in Algiers (though not in Algeria as a whole) most consumers of Hollywood films in America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand would not have heard of these parts of North Africa until they saw Algiers, Casablanca, and the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope comedy The Road to Morocco (1942).

The only other time Algiers was on some people’s radar in Europe was when French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier proposed in 1931 the building of a second high-rise city above Algiers to make vertical residences more equal than those in rich and poor areas of horizontal neighbourhoods. The French Government wanted nothing to do with the idea and by 1938 the Arab Muslim population was still living mainly in The Casbah, the centuries-old hilltop district built below a decaying citadel. The Casbah’s intertwining lanes and terraces are basic to the plot of the film Algiers.

None of the three films mentioned above were created in the places of their titles.  Casablanca was a Hollywood film lot and the Moroccan desert was the Imperial Sand Dunes in Southern California. The closest to geographic authenticity was Algiers as producer Walter Wanger sent a London photographer to take still shots of Algiers which were spliced into the moving picture.

Plot

Charles Boyer and Heddy Lamarr

Boyer and Lamarr
ALGIERS is a close remake of the 1937 French film Pepe le Moko, the title character played by Charles Boyer in the American version. Pepe is a jewel thief, hiding out for two years in The Casbah where he leads a small gang and has an Algerian girlfriend, Ines (Sigrid Gurie). French authorities cannot capture Le Moko who persistently escapes through the labyrinth which is the Casbah.

Wily local detective Inspector Slimane (Joseph Calleia)  knows le Moko can only be captured if he is lured out of the Casbah by his love for beautiful French tourist Gaby (Hedy Lamarr),

That plot outline might not sound like it but Algiers is a gritty noir. The dominant theme of the film is betrayal while the secondary theme of the loneliness of the Colons (colonizers) far from home is not particularly convincing or compelling.

Main Theme

Joseph Calleiam, right, and Sigrid Gurie, centre

WHY THE THEME of betrayal?

Well, producer Walter Wanger was an anti-fascist, director John Cromwell was later black banned by the House Un-American Activities Committee, 1938-75 (with little evidence) as a Communist. Cinematographer James Wong Howe was “gray banned” for a short period in the late 1940s as a communist sympathiser.

Fascist political parties, which had support organisations in the United States, controlled Germany and Italy. Civil war between republicans and fascists/ monarchists raged in Spain, across the sea from Algeria. Betrayal was in the mind of many in Europe and the United States. During the time between the movies Algiers and Casablanca, fascist Germany had conquered France and set up a puppet Vichy Government in France and her African colonies.

A 1938 noir: is that possible? SOME scholars suggest The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the first film noir. French film critic Nino Frank coined the term Black Film in 1946 for war-time  American crime films released in France following the war:  The Maltese Falcon (1941)Murder, My Sweet (1944)  and Laura (1944).

Critics were right to tie film noir to war but for the most part they had the wrong war. Expat European film makers and dramatists (often Jewish) brought to the U,S. the styles of 1920s German Expressionism, a reaction to the horrors of World War I.

Noir novelists Dashiell Hammett The Maltese Falcon (1930) and Raymond Chandler The Big Sleep (1939) both incurred chronic injuries in World War I and became alcoholics after that war. James M. Cain The Postman Always Rings Twice 1934 served in France during World Wat 1. Cain has a credit in Algiers for additional dialogue. A pre-1941 film such as Algiers is sometimes called proto-noir. A literal translation of the Greek prefix proto is first and I am happy to acclaim the movie as a genuine noir.

What makes it noir?

Note the shadows in this scene

Noir: it’s a shadowy world CHINESE-American cinematographer James Wong Howe was a great innovator who achieved the first of his 10 Academy Award nominations (he won for The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Hud (1963)) for Algiers.

He liked playing about with shadows which is one of the hallmarks of noir. Close-ups are prominent in Algiers, another noir trope. There is one long close-up of Lamarr where we wait for long seconds for a change of expression which finally arrives but is difficult to read. The close-up looks more bizarre than evocative but it stayed in the film. Cigarettes are smoked constantly to place us in the edgy world of noir.

The players
CHARLES BOYER (28 August 1899 – 26 August. 1978) was a French actor who spent the 1930s acting in both Hollywood and Paris. He became a U.S. Citizen in 1942. Boyer received four Oscar nominations including for Algiers and his most famous role in the noir Gaslight (1944) with Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten.

Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr had her first English-speaking role in Algiers. Lamarr became a star after Algiers but Hollywood producers and directors had little faith in her acting ability and she invariably had few lines in her roles as a sex bomb. She appeared in other noirs, Crossroads (1942) The Conspirators (1944) The Strange Woman 1946 (in the public domain) Dishonored Lady, and Lady Without Passport (1950, directed by Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy/The Big Combo)).

Maltese-born Joseph Calleia received the 1938 National Board of Review Award for his performance as Arab Inspector Slimane. It is an attention-grabbing performance with the policeman’s wide-open eyes and cane making him seem blind until he says he sees le Moko every day.

Sigrid Gurie (May 18, 1911 – August 14, 1969) was born in Brooklyn to Norwegian parents and raised in Oslo. She was the female lead in the interesting Voice in the Wind, a 1944 noir directed by Arthur Ripley. She gave up acting for art and jewellery making in the late 1940s,  Gene Lockhart was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor for his role in Algiers as a police informant.

Prodigious character actor Lockhart appeared in more than 300 films. All lovers of old movies will recognise his face. He appeared with Lamarr in The Strange Woman (1946).

Trivia
ALAN HALE SNR is Grandpere, a member of le Moko’s gang, who spends most of the film smoking hashish through a water pipe. Alan Hale Jnr is best remembered as the Skipper in the television show Gilligan’s Island (1964–1967).

Bob Denver, who played Gilligan, was found guilty of possessing marijuana, in 1971 and in 1998 but did no jail time on either conviction. Hale Jnr was in the 1954 noir Rogue Cop, starring Robert TaylorJanet Leigh, and George Raft.

Chain smoker Robert Taylor died of lung cancer at the age of 57, proving some drugs will indeed kill you.

Poetic realism

POETIC REALISM was a movement in 1930s French film where the lives of people on the margins of society were partially represented in lyrical metaphors.

The French original Pépé le Moko (1937) directed by Julien Duvivier used poetic realism and so does the American copy.

Examples are the impressive silhouette scene and Pepe running towards scenes of France. With the fall of France to the Germans in 1940, Duvivier and Pépé le Moko lead Jean Gabin escaped to Hollywood. Gabin starred in the noir Moontide (1942) with Ida Lupino and Claude Rains. Moontide used poetic realism. Duvivier directed five films in America. The only noir was Destiny 1944 for which he was uncredited because his contribution was retrieved from the cutting-room floor of another of his films.

Financials
Some of my favourite noirs are low-budget or B-pictures where imagination and skill made up for lack of budget. Algiers was not low budget. It cost $692,000 to make – $11.8m in today’s money and returned $16.3m. (Blockbusters with ridiculous budgets of $100-300 million are an invention of the past decade or so.  Maybe the accountants are getting more creative and filmmakers less so. In today’s money, Star Wars 1977 cost less than $50 million and returned a gross of $1.6 billion. Impressive! How about Gone with the Wind (1939) which returned a gross of $1.8 billion, today’s values, on a budget of $68 million, today’s dollars.

See the highest grossing films in real terms but not adjusted for population.

Algiers rating

Play the movie

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One response to “Algiers by John Cromwell

  1. Great analysis of ‘Film Noir’ genre by Bernie Dowling from Bent Banana Books!

    Like

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