Josef von Sternberg made seven movies with Marlene Dietrich. Morocco was the first one released in the US, although they had made Der Blaue Engel/The Blue Angel earlier the same year at the Ufa studio in Berlin. Each of the seven films explores a different variation on masochistic relationships and amour fou. Sometimes Dietrich is the femme fatale, and sometimes she’s the one brought down by love. Morocco is one of the latter, although it’s more complicated than that. There are two interlocking love triangles, and all parties involved are more or less humiliated by love. Some of them enjoy it more than others.
Dietrich plays a world-weary bohemian, Amy Jolly (amie jolie), a cabaret singer who has come to Morocco by ship to die a broken, forgotten woman, but who instead finds herself falling in love again, this time with the legionnaire and infamous womanizer Tom Brown (Gary Cooper). There is also an older bourgeois man played by Adolphe Menjou who tries helplessly to buy Amy’s love, but it doesn’t go his way this time.
1930 was in what’s called the pre-Code era in Hollywood (i.e. before the Production Code imposed new levels of censorship in 1934), which means that things could still get pretty racy. Morocco is probably most famous for the scene in which Dietrich swaggers around in a tuxedo singing a French cabaret song and then kisses a woman in the audience on the mouth. The scene still has a lot of sizzle 75 years later, largely due to Dietrich’s gender-bending performance, straight, so to speak, out of Weimar. The gender-bending goes deeper than that, however, as she throws a flower to the sexy young Cooper and he puts it behind his ear. He’s happy to be feminized by the debonair Dietrich.
Sternberg for the most part strikes a sophisticated tone, but one raunchy line comes when Cooper is flirting with an Arab woman, who signals with her hands what hour she’ll tryst with him. Or perhaps it’s her price?
His sergeant demands, “What are you doing with your fingers?”
“Nothing,” Cooper replies. “Yet.”
Dave Kehr, in his New York Times review of the DVD set including Morocco, describes how these films “use light and shadow to create dense, complex, labyrinthine spaces that somehow come to embody the unbridgeable gulf that separates lover from beloved.” There are many scenes in Morocco where the characters move through tunnels of light and shadow in the streets of the unnamed city, always watched by jealous, desirous, enigmatic eyes. In many ways, the whole landscape seems to be shaped from shadows, perhaps because they made the movie too quickly to allow for elaborate sets, or perhaps because the best way to evoke Morocco in California is with shadow. The soundscape, too, is very evocative, with the martial drums of the legionnaires fading in and out, and faux-Arabic music swelling suddenly out of the hot night shadows. (The one Oscar the movie earned was for sound.)
The first time I watched Morocco, I literally couldn’t believe what I was seeing in the final scene, and even on repeat viewings it makes me laugh with delight at its sheer affront to sense. Sternberg is not interested in motivation but in gestures — the choices people make at their most irrational and helpless. Adolphe Menjou’s most sympathetic moment comes when he helplessly rationalizes his willingness to help Dietrich connect with her other lover, “You see, I love her, and I’ll do anything to make her happy.”
It’s an orientalist fantasy about love making fools of us all. It’s a Morocco of the mind, where we wander the dusty alleys of desire, forgetting the plot (whatever happened to that second love triangle?), losing our way, and finding ourselves unexpectedly at last in a sensuous desert waste.