Classic Movies

Grey Market Cinema: Casbah (1948)


Jewel thief Pépé Le Moko (Tony Martin) is wanted by the French police…for obvious reasons.  Pépé is the mastermind of a gang of no-accounts that operates out of The Casbah in Algiers (Casbah translates as “fortress” or “citadel”), an area where he can apparently move freely without being molested by the gendarmes.  Algiers’ police commissioner Monsieur Louvain (Thomas Gomez) would like nothing more than to send a force numbering 11,000 men into the walled environs to round up Pépé…but Inspector Slimane (Peter Lorre), who “walks a beat” in the Casbah, advises that this would be most foolish…reminding him that there are 50,000 “bodyguards” protecting the fugitive.  (Le Moko’s a popular guy.)  Like all bosses who are convinced they know more than their lowly employees (and Louvain makes Slimane lowly by temporarily demoting him to “Sergeant”), Louvain has a try at rounding up his prey.  (Spoiler warning: it does not go well.)

Märta Torén, Peter Lorre, and Yvonne De Carlo in Casbah (1948)

Despite being safe from the long arm of the law inside the Casbah, Pépé has become frustrated by the inconvenient truth that his sanctuary also doubles as a prison.  HIs meeting one night of a young Parisian woman named Gaby (Märta Torén), engaged to a black marketer/wanker appropriately tabbed Claude (Herbert Rudley), just might be the catalyst for his making a break for it—at least that’s what Slimane is banking on.  (As insurance, Louvain has enlisted the help of one of Pépé’s old prison confederates, Carlo [Douglas Dick], to betray him.)

poster“Come wiz me to the Cazbah…” is the line impressionists used to imitate French actor Charles Boyer…much in the way “copycats” appropriated “Judy Judy Judy” for Cary Grant or “Play it again, Sam” for Humphrey Bogart.  (It goes without saying that none of these lines were spoken by these actors in any of their films.)  But “the Casbah” is indelibly associated with Boyer; he starred as Pépé in the 1938 movie Algiers (alongside Hedy Lamarr), which inspired the 1948 reboot I’ve described above (Casbah).  Both movies were based on a 1937 novel penned by Henri La Barthe (as “Détective Ashelbé”), Pépé le Moko, filmed that same year by Julien Duvivier (and starring Jean Gabin as the titular thief).

The original 1937 film is often considered by noir fans to be an early example of the film style.  Casbah has noir elements, too, though it’s not quite as dark as its predecessors due to its musical numbers and dance sequences sprinkled throughout the production.  The remake was fashioned as a vehicle for vocalist Tony Martin (whose hits at that time included It’s a Blue World and To Each His Own), no stranger to the movies (Ali Baba Goes to Town, You Can’t Have Everything) but he was looking for a hit since his last appearance in 1946’s Till the Clouds Go By, and he inked a deal with Universal (on behalf of Marston Productions, the production company he owned with his agent).  Unfortunately, Casbah lost money and the messy court battle that ensued afterward (Marston charged that U-I didn’t do enough to promote the movie) resulted in Universal’s acquisition of the film.  Martin eventually ended up in court a second time to argue he was eligible to take the loss as a tax deduction…that case he won.  The disappointing returns of Casbah briefly put the kibosh on Tony’s movie career (his next film was 1951’s Two Tickets to Broadway) but the hits, as they say, kept comin’ with such classics as There’s No Tomorrow, I Get Ideas, and Here (In This Enchanted Place).  (Tony also married TDOY fave Cyd Charisse in 1948 and was with her for sixty years—nice work if you can get it!)

Tony Martin and De Carlo

Martin is actually billed second in Casbah; the top slot goes to Yvonne De Carlo, one of Universal’s big box office draws at the time…but sadly, since Yvonne plays the woman who pines for Pépé from afar (she’s Inez, an innkeeper) her moments in the movie come few and far between (she duets with Martin on Hooray for Love, and reprises Tony’s earlier For Every Man There’s a Woman—the catchy tune that earned Casbah its only Oscar nomination).  Swedish film star Märta Torén handles the leading lady duties and does quite well; I think this is the third film I’ve seen her in (the other two being Sirocco [1951] and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By [1952]—which has recently been released to DVD/Blu-ray by ClassicFlix and I hope to have a review of it up soon).

Katherine Dunham and her dancers entertain Martin in one of Casbah’s highlights

Casbah features one of Peter Lorre’s best performances as the wily Inspector Slimane, a world-weary gendarme who’s under pressure to capture Le Moko and put him in the pokey…but knows if he just bides his time, all good things come to those who wait.  (I enjoy how Slimane and Pépé, while clearly adversaries, share a mutual respect…symbolized in how Pépé is always asking his nemesis for a match and Slimane counters by continually bumming cigarettes.)  The movie is also a wonderful showcase for the legendary Katherine Dunham, who not only has a speaking role (she plays Odette) but leads her dance troupe in two terpsichorean highlights (you might be able to spot member Eartha Kitt, making her movie debut).  (Dunham also appears in Star Spangled Rhythm [1942], and her troupe provides one of the many memorable moments in Stormy Weather [1943].)

Ginny! Casbah was Virginia Gregg’s first credited feature film appearance (here with Herb Rudley in a screen capture from the movie).
The Region 2 DVD

Universal borrowed director John Berry from Paramount (where he rode herd on the likes of Miss Susie Slagle’s and Cross My Heart, both in 1946) to helm Casbah; it was one of his last feature films before he was blacklisted (I have mentioned in the past how fond I am of his 1951 noir He Ran All the Way) and he adds some nice touches to the movie, ensuring it doesn’t get too fluffy (I really liked the way he handled the scene toward the end where Martin watches helplessly as Torén leaves for Paris by plane).  One of the movies Berry directed while he was in overseas exile was 1957’s Tamango (starring Dorothy Dandridge), which my longtime online pal Baby gifted to me on VHS many eons ago and which I also noticed has been tentatively scheduled to be shown on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ on July 25 (10:15pm EDT) so I hope Tee Cee Em makes this happen.  As for Casbah, it’s been made available on Region 2 DVD (and I’ve seen a version or two on this side of the pond, usually Region-free) but I grabbed my copy from Finders Keepers (and the Universal-International logo at the opening has been lopped off, so caveat emptor).  It’s a good little movie, one that I’d recommend most highly.

2 thoughts on “Grey Market Cinema: Casbah (1948)

  1. Virginia!

    Interesting cast in this movie, especially in comparison to the earlier feature, which is the only one of the two I have seen. I can’t say I like it, but I don’t dislike it. It’s one of those movies.

    So far my only Marta Toren movie is One Way Street with James Mason. I have a feeling I’ll be running into her a lot from now on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Leonard Maltin remarked that CASBAH works if you buy Tony Martin as Le Moko. Len thinks he does a great job; I thought he was okay but no Boyer. The supporting cast is a lot more interesting to me (Will Lee, SESAME STREET’s Mr. Hooper, plays a beggar!)…


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