Viewer Guide: Algiers and The Carer

November 8, 2019 | Richard Peña

Algiers (1938)


This week’s classic is Algiers, a 1938 romantic drama directed by John Cromwell.

Charles Boyer stars as Pepe le Moko, an infamous Parisian thief who has been hiding out for two years in the labyrinthine Casbah neighborhood of Algiers, the capital city of Algeria during that country’s long colonization by the French. Much to the frustration of the local authorities, so far Pepe has managed to elude capture—just so long as he stays within the shadowy alleyways of the Casbah, the part of the city that’s the domain of the “natives,” and into which the authorities enter with the greatest reluctance.

When a new police chief arrives from Paris with renewed determination to finally put a stop to Pepe’s open flaunting of the law, the Casbah’s seasoned police inspector reacts with world-weary skepticism. Regardless, a squad sets out on another search for Pepe, and while the new methods get the police closer to their prey than usual, once again he escapes thanks to his hidden network of spies and helpers, especially Ines, played by Sigrid Gurie, whose romantic affection for Pepe goes largely unrequited. But it’s not the new police chief who poses the greatest threat to Pepe; it’s a beautiful French tourist named Gaby, played by Hedy Lamarr in her Hollywood film debut. Instantly smitten by Gaby’s alluring eyes, smile—and jewelry—Pepe finds himself at risk like never before, confronting his increasing temptation to leave the safety of the Casbah as his romance with Gaby continues to grow.

Although re-makes now seem practically a mainstay of contemporary Hollywood, that practice didn’t begin recently; Hollywood was always on the lookout for good material, and if they saw a good French, German or even Japanese film they were eager to Americanize it. There’s even a rumor that someone contacted Vittorio de Sica to ask about re-making Bicycle Thieves as a project for Cary Grant. Oh well…

Algiers was a remake of the classic 1937 French film Pépé le Moko which starred Jean Gabin, and which enjoyed some limited success in the US. Algiers closely resembles its predecessor, much to the dismay of Charles Boyer, who didn’t want to come across as if he was imitating Gabin’s performance. But the film is mostly remembered today as marking the Hollywood film debut of Hedy Lamarr, who had created an international sensation by appearing nude in the 1933 Czech film Ecstasy. An Austrian born Jew, Lamarr escaped a bad first marriage—as well as the Nazis—by reportedly pretending to be her own maid and fleeing Vienna for Paris. In London, she was discovered by Louis B. Mayer, who brought her to Hollywood with hopes of grooming her to become the next exotic superstar along the lines of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich.

Lamarr has recently received renewed interest due to the documentary Bombshell, which recounts both her Hollywood career as well as her largely unknown talents as an inventor. Frequently bored by glamour girl roles in films like White Cargo, where she famously murmured, “I am…Tondelayo,” Lamarr would occupy her technical-oriented mind by tinkering on various projects. During the early years of World War II, when Lamarr learned of the vulnerability of radio-controlled torpedoes to jamming, she collaborated on designing a “frequency-hopping” system that could not be blocked. Although Lamarr’s device was patented in 1942, it wasn’t really used by the Navy until the early 60s; however, Lamarr’s frequency-hopping concept eventually evolved into one of the founding principles behind secure WiFi.

The Carer (2016)


This week’s indie is The Carer, A 2016 comedy-drama directed by János Edelényi.

As the legendary American actor John Barrymore once remarked, “a man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” And in The Carer, such a decline seems to be the case with Sir Michael Gifford, an illustrious British star of stage and screen who once dazzled audiences with his Shakespearean prowess. But as played by the similarly acclaimed Scottish-born actor Brian Cox, Sir Michael has faded from view into old age as a curmudgeonly recluse, now spending most of his energy “not going gentle into that good night,” in the words of Dylan Thomas. Despite a palatial country estate and the support of a loyal staff who somehow are still able to tolerate his petty and sometimes racist tirades, Sir Michael must endure all the same indignities of aging faced by everyone else, regardless of fame and fortune. Suffering from Parkinson’s and prone to falls and bathroom accidents, Michael clearly needs fulltime assistance, a task that falls to his semi-estranged daughter Sophia, who struggles to find—and keep—a live-in caregiver for him. But with the arrival of Dorottya, an aspiring Hungarian actress played Coco König, the power dynamic of the household begins to shift: where Sir Michael is critical and alienating, Dorottya is tolerant and steadfast. And unlike Sir Michael’s previous caregivers, instead of living in terror of his next tantrum, Dorottya’s pragmatic good nature—and ability to quote Shakespeare—gradually begins to rehabilitate some of Sir Michael’s regrets back into dreams.

What is it about actors and aging? There seems to be a world-wide genre of films dealing with the vicissitudes of actors passing on to their not so golden years—works ranging from France’s La Fin du Jour to China’s Just for Fun, passing through such treats as the Swiss documentary Tosca’s Kiss, about a retirement home for opera singers. And who can forget Sunset Boulvard? Perhaps the combination of those who have spent their lives preparing to perform and a reality for which there can be no real preparation is simply too attractive to let pass by. Director János Edelényi hails from Hungary, and brought with him for this British production cinematographer Tibor Mathé, who creates a luminous warmth for all the spaces of Sir Michael’s somewhat overwhelming manor. And like Sir Michael, Brian Cox has also been extensively honored for his work in the theater, winning two Olivier Awards for his performances in Rat in the Skull in 1984 and Titus Andronicus in 1988. For eight months, Cox starred in the London West End production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N Roll, later reprising his performance on Broadway in 2007. In 2000, he was honored with a Primetime Emmy Award for his performance as Hermann Goering in the miniseries Nuremberg, and received an Emmy nomination for his guest appearance on the hit comedy series Frasier in 2001. Currently, Cox is starring in the HBO series Succession.

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