The city of Algiers is a haven for people from all over the world, and within its walls is the area known as the Casbah, a haven of a different sort for it is a dangerous place where criminals can feel safe as the police do not dare enter. One of the most successful lawbreakers there is Pepe Le Moko (Charles Boyer), a specialist in jewel thievery, and the authorities are incredibly keen to arrest him. Tonight they hear from their contact that Pepe is visiting a go-between, Grandpere (Alan Hale), to cast his eye over a collection of stolen goods, and the cops are soon surrounding the building... but Pepe won't be caught so easily.
If you're ever watching an old Bugs Bunny cartoon and he starts speaking in a French accent, lowering his eyelids and chatting up women, then you should know that it's Boyer who he's imitating. And of course, this is where fellow Warner Bros. animated star Pepe Le Pew got his whole act from, such was the impact of this film, a swift Hollywood remake of the French Jean Gabin film Pepe Le Moko that typecast Boyer for life as the Gallic lover, a role which he was never entirely comfortable with. Scripted by John Howard Lawson (with additonal material by celebrated thriller writer James M. Cain), it's a curiously artificial experience compared to the film it's based on.
That said, what it capitalises on is the glamorously louche atmosphere, and what atmosphere it is, greatly assisted by James Wong Howe's glowing cinematography. What Pepe longs for is his beloved Paris, which might as well be a galaxy away for all the hope he has of returning there what with all the police keeping their beady eyes on him as far as possible. Yet a chance meeting with some tourists stirs his old memories, especially the bejewelled Gaby (Hedy Lamarr in her Hollywood debut), who is engaged to a rich businessman but feels, as Pepe does, an immediate attraction between them.
So a doomed romance develops, and it seems as though nobody around the two understands the depth of feeling that they have for each other, emphasising the melancholy under the debonair exterior that Boyer conveys so well. Lamarr, on the other hand, doesn't get to show much range and appears simply decorative (Boyer was reputedly unimpressed with her), but it's enough to carry the role of impossible desire. Because Pepe is a criminal, we know that he can never attain true happiness due to the conventions of the era.
In many ways, it's not the story that carries Algiers, but the details, from the sinister, such as the informant cutting the cards to see the Ace of Spades foretelling his demise, or the henchman who blankly plays with a ball and cup, to the romantic, such as Pepe and Gaby gazing at each other across the table while the other tourists prattle on inanely - a clever way of putting across their sophistication. Everybody wants a piece of Pepe, whether they be on his crooked wavelength, the law who are tightening the net around him or the ladies who fall for him, including the gypsy woman Ines (second billed Sigrid Gurie, who hardly anyone remembers). With Boyer's iconic presence and a tragic climax befitting the affair, it's all too easy to wallow in the film's sentiment even if it doesn't convince otherwise. Music by Vincent Scotto and Mohamed Ygerbuchen.