This seminal, highly influential French thriller from 1937 informed an entire genre that would dominate the following decade of the classic Hollywood era: film noir. What’s more, its protagonist would be the namesake for the Warner Bros cartoon character Pépé le Pew, and, arguably, such iconic noir mainstays as Bogey’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca. Followed a year later by an inferior, hastily-composed Stateside remake called Algiers, Pépé le Moko centers on Jean Gabin’s title character, a Parisian criminal mastermind who eludes authorities and is soon happily ensconced in the labyrinthine Algerian Casbah. Stylistically, aesthetically and in its performances, the film is a font from which an entire genre flowed.
This 1947 noir is a classic of the genre that was shot almost entirely on location in Harlem and other precincts of New York City, lending it an authenticity and vitality—and at some points a realistic, almost documentary feel—that set it apart from its postwar contemporaries. The story in Kiss of Death is pretty simple: after his wife commits suicide, Nick, a small-time crim played by Victor Mature, decides to squeal on his underworld cronies. The film is more about the performances than any narrative flourishes or twists, though: Pauline Kael rightly observed that Richard Widmark—in the character of Tommy Udo, a psychopath released from prison after being put there because Nick informed on him—is “a giggling, sadistic gunman with homicidal mania in his voice.” It’s a fantastic performance that was rightly nominated for an Oscar. Elsewhere, Karl Malden has a minor role as a detective . The film was co-written by the über-prolific big-screen scribe Ben Hecht, and directed by Henry Hathaway, who would go on to make the 1962 classic How the West Was Won and, in the late-’60s, the first adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel True Grit. Kiss of Death was reshaped into a Western called The Friend Who Walked the West in 1958, and remade (with an intriguing cast) by Barbet Schroder in the mid-’90s—but the original still holds sway.
Like Marathon Man, Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, the vastly underrated cop thriller The Seven-Ups showcases (if that’s the right word) the grimy, gritty, dirty mean streets of Ed Koch’s corrupt, financially—and possibly also morally—bankrupt New York City of the early- and mid-1970s. The late Roy Scheider stars as one of a corps of undercover detectives known for putting people away for seven years or longer (hence the title), and the car chases are up there with the best William Friedkin has to offer in The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A.—hardly surprising given producer-director Philip D’Antoni had a hand in Connection and the 1968 classic Bullitt.
Kiss of Death and The Seven-Ups are out through Magna Home Entertainment; Pépé le Moko is out through Madman.