Algiers (1938) marked Hedy Lamarr’s American screen debut. MGM hoped she would be the new Greta Garbo with her “exotic” beauty. Although she was new to American audiences, Hedy was already known throughout Europe for her role in Ecstasy (1933), a Czech-Austrian co-production in which she appeared nude. The film also supposedly marked the first non-pornographic film to feature sex scenes and female orgasm.
Several other actresses had been considered for the role of Gaby, but Boyer met Lamarr at a party and suggested her for the role. The director, John Cromwell, would later claim that he felt that Hedy could not act as she lacked “personality”, but her beauty was a big draw for audiences at the time of the film’s release. The film would go on to be nominated for four academy awards, including best actor for Boyer, as well as the AFI’s 2002 100 Years…100 Passions list. With good reason, as Boyer and Lamarr are beautiful and haunting together. Their love affair is a doomed one, Boyer’s barely contained anguish and Lamarr’s degenerative despair mean that their onscreen chemistry is captivating.
Pepe le Moko (played by Charles Boyer) is wanted for jewel robbery in France. He lives in Casbah, the old city of Algiers, which is a haven for criminals and the dispossessed. There he is protected by the workings of Casbah, which means that the police cannot touch him unless he leaves and tries to venture into the new city.
A new inspector, freshly arrived from France, is unfamiliar with the workings of Casbah, and tries to arrest Pepe, who is first seen trying to sell a pearl to a fence. When Regis (played by Gene Lockhart), a petty criminal in Casbah, warns Ines (played by Sigrid Guire), Pepe’s girlfriend, and she informs him that Pepe already knows that the police are coming. Pepe escapes arrest by hiding in a secret room in the fence’s house and then moving across the connected terraces of Casbah.
Gaby (played by Hedy Lamarr) and Pepe meet by chance whilst he is being patched up, after being grazed by a bullet, by his young associate, Pierot’s girlfriend, Aisha. Pepe is arrested by Gaby’s beautiful face and jewellery.
Pepe is arrogant about his supposed invincibility within Casbah, while Inspector Slimane (played by Joseph Calleia) tells Gaby that he thinks that Pepe is destined to die young and badly.
Regis, who is actually a police informer, and extremely jealous of Pepe, plans to sell him to the police by luring him out of Casbah. Slimane thinks that this is highly amusing as he has been watching Pepe for two years and knows no petty schemes will get him to leave his haven.
Regis lures Pierot, who is gullible and receptive to Regis’ lying, out of Casbah by having a fake letter delivered to the boy, and then claiming that the writing in the letter matches a genuine letter from Peirot’s mother.
It is revealed that Gaby is unhappily engaged to a much older, and very unattractive man, so that she may lead a lavish lifestyle that consists of beautiful jewellery, clothes, and travelling. She is intrigued by Pepe, and arranges to venture back into Casbah that night with her fiancé’s frivolous friends.
Pepe wants to return to France much to the confusion, chagrin and anger of Ines, who cannot understand his feelings of claustrophobia and homesickness as she has never ventured outside of Casbah, due to her being born and bred there.
Pepe learns that Pierot has ventured outside of Casbah because of Regis’ deceit, and intimidates the other man until he is utterly terrified. As planned, Gaby visits Casbah with Slimane and meets Pepe again. They connect over their love of Paris, and whilst dancing, Gaby is excited by Pepe’s somewhat rough handling, although she rejects his attempt to kiss her. Ines observes this with jealousy, and does not go out to find Pierot as Pepe had asked her to.
Pierot returns, but he has been badly wounded by the police. He tries to shoot Regis in retaliation, but dies before he can do so. Pepe drinks out of mourning and anger at his inability to attend Pierot’s funeral. Slimane repeats his prophetic warning about Pepe’s impending demise, and taunts him that Gaby won’t return to Casbah because of Regis’ murder the night before. Pepe goes into a rage, and tries to leave Casbah, but Ines stops him from leaving by lying that Gaby is in his house. Once Pepe finds that Ines was lying he deflates and acknowledges his own foolishness. Gaby returns to Casbah, revealing Slimane’s lie, but the Inspector resolves to wait for Pepe to break once again.
Pepe says that Gaby is his escape from his small existence, and that she symbolises his love for Paris. Gaby resolves to return to Casbah again the next day, but both she and Pepe silently acknowledge the impossibility of the situation. Pepe has fallen deeply in love with Gaby, and Ines and Slimane conspire to keep them apart for their own respective reasons: Ines in order to keep Pepe in Casbah and Slimane to get him to leave it.
Slimane goes to Gaby at her hotel, and lies to her by telling her that Pepe has been murdered. Gaby is inconsolable at this news. When she does not return to Casbah, Pepe believes that she has jilted him, and asks Carlos, one of his associates, to deliver a letter to her. L’Abi, another police informant, tells Pepe that Carlos has been arrested. Pepe knows he is lying and makes L’Abi divulge Slimane’s plan to lure Pepe from Casbah. Despite this, and knowing that it is likely that he will die, Pepe resolves to leave Casbah. As he leaves, he imagines that he is walking down the Champs-Élysées.
Ines also leaves Casbah, and tells Slimane that Pepe is going to join Gaby on the boat back to France. Slimane is disgusted and tells Ines that she has killed Pepe because of her possessiveness.
Pepe manages to board the boat, but he is detained by Slimane and his men before he can be reunited with Gaby. He is taken off the ship, but Slimane allows him to stand at the gates and watch as it leaves the harbour. But Pepe sees Gaby on the ship deck, and cannot help but run towards her, causing one of the police officer to think that he is trying to escape, and to fatally shoot him. Gaby is unaware of this because Pepe is too far away for her to see him, and the ship whistle goes off as he calls out to her.
Slimane apologises to Pepe for what has come to pass, but Pepe is happy that he has been killed, as he sees it as his escape from any kind of incarceration.
Despite John Cromwell’s observation that Hedy supposedly could not act, Hedy gives a fine performance in Algiers. As with Ziegfeld Girl, her beauty is made much of, but Algiers portrays her beauty as being transcendent and entrapping, for both she and Boyer’s characters. Pepe says, “You’re beautiful. That’s easy to say. I know that other people have told you. But what I’m telling you is different, see? For me you’re more than that.” Gaby’s beauty, and her love for Pepe, is the catalyst for his destruction, but it is also the reason that he strives to break away from the half life he has been leading in Casbah, and try to live fully with her, even if it means he will die. Gaby’s beauty has allowed her to escape poverty, but it has meant that she is unable to marry for love and must resign herself to a loveless life with a much older man, who only values her for her looks.
Regardless of Cromwell’s dismissive attitude towards Hedy; the film, and her performance in it, inspired Warner Brothers to produce Casablanca, and they originally wanted her to play the female lead. This did not come to pass because MGM would not loan her out to Warner.
Sigrid Gurie has the more demanding role, but Hedy holds her own. She looks stunning, but there is something haunted and haunting about her portrayal of Gaby. She is a woman who is deeply unhappy, and whose melancholia increases over her complex love for Pepe, as well as her eventual relegation to a fate entirely devoid of meaningful emotional connections. Her entire performance shows a yearning for escape. Hedy shows her mastery of conveying character without dialogue, especially at the end of the film when she looks utterly heartbroken over the loss of Pepe, and her defeat in the face of a bid for true love. She is subtle and understated opposite Boyer’s almost manic turn as Pepe, and therefore perfectly compliments his performance.
This is my second entry in the Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Blogathon hosted by Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Please check out her blog to find out more and read everyone else’s entries.