CASBAH. Universal, 1948. Tony Martin, Yvonne De Carlo, Peter Lorre, Marta Toren, Hugo Haas, Thomas Gomez. Screenplay by L. Bush-Fekete and Arnold Manoff. Directed by John Berry.

   The idea of a musical remake of Algiers / Pepe le Moko starring Tony Martin and Yvonne De Carlo struck me as so incredibly kitschy that I had to see it. I went into this movie hoping for something spectacularly awful, but I was disappointed — happily so, because it’s really quite a fine film, and worthy in my opinion to stand beside its romantic forebears.

   If you’re not familiar with the tale, it’s about master thief Pepe Le Moko, who rules a Thieves Kingdom in the Kasbah, but knows he will be caught if ever he tries to leave. And if you can’t see the ending coming from here, well I’ll just let it surprise you.

   I will say up front that Tony Martin is the real surprise here, displaying a brooding discontent light years away from The Big Store or his other light-weight musicals. Yvonne De Carlo offers her usual exotic thing as his Algerian squeeze, and Marta Toren lends just the right touch of wistful class to her role as the woman who awakes Pepe’s nostalgic yen for Paris.

   Even better are the supporting players: Thomas Gomez as a crude police chief, Herbert Rudley as Marta’s acquisitive sugar-daddy, Douglas Dick as Pepe’s old-cohort-turned-quisling, the legendary Hugo Haas, and especially Peter Lorre as the only character who moves easily among them all.

   Lorre in fact, is the glue that holds the story together, in one of the best parts of his later career: Knowing, witty, and possessed of a Zen-like patience, he gives the film an emotional depth and resonance that are a pleasure just to watch.

   But I credit Casbah’s success to director John Berry. Back when I reviewed Tension (here ) I cited the strong sense of local atmosphere that film evoked. Well here, Berry does the same thing for the Kasbah. Perhaps he was aided considerably by cinematographer Irving Glassberg, who worked with Douglas Sirk and Anthony Mann at the height of their days at Universal, and by the alluring sets of John DeCuir, who went on to South Pacific and The King and I, but it’s Berry’s sure hand for composition and tracking that lead us dizzyingly through maze-like streets and alleys, in and out of steamy nightclubs and squalid apartments… well, squalid by the standards of a Universal movies — most of them look classier than my old Bachelor digs.

   To get back to the Casbah, though, the film comes off with a romantic intensity that surprised me. The songs by Harold Arlen suit the mood splendidly, and there’s even a sultry dance number from Eartha Kitt. And best of all, when we reach the ending we all knew was coming (if we’ve seen the previous versions) Berry does it up with originality and an artistry all his own.

   This is not an easy film to find, but if you get a chance, don’t miss it.