Friday, January 30, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: MOROCCO (1930)

Marlene Dietrich makes her Hollywood debut in Morocco (1930), with Josef von Sternberg, her director for The Blue Angel (1930), presenting his star to the American cinema scene. True to the promise of its exotic locale, Morocco offers a feast of smoldering gazes and sexual tension, raised to a fever pitch by relentless desert heat. Dietrich, a world weary siren, stirs the blood of two leading men, Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou, both compelling as rival embodiments of passion and ease. Just as it did for American audiences then, Morocco provides a fine introduction to Dietrich now, giving us a chance to experience her ineffable allure at the very height of its power.

The story opens in Morocco with Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), a member of the Foreign Legion who passes the time by seducing every woman he sees. The wealthy Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) and jaded singer Amy Jolly (Dietrich) soon arrive by boat, although Amy rejects La Bessiere's constant offers of service. Tom, naturally, makes a play for the cool chanteuse, but he and Amy feel drawn to each other more powerfully than either can explain. Unfortunately, Tom's previous affair with the wife of Adjutant Caesar (Ullrich Haupt) has consequences that may take him beyond Amy's reach forever.

Dietrich certainly makes an impression with her performance, especially during her first appearance at the crowded club where foreigners and natives gather. Dressed in a man's tuxedo and completely unconcerned about the rabble's reaction, she seduces with languid assurance and a knowing gaze. She compounds the sexual ambiguity of her man's clothes by kissing another woman on the lips in payment for a flower from her hair, a daring act even in a Pre-Code film. In case we miss the point of all this, Dietrich then comes out in a skimpy costume and sings "What am I bid for my apple?" Both La Bessiere and Tom buy apples, making their sexual interest clear, but only Tom ends the song with the key to Amy's room. Throughout the film, Dietrich's persona exudes experience; she knows the difference between sex and love, enough that Tom's many affairs don't trouble her at all. Real devotion, however, is new to each of the three main characters; Tom discovers decency he didn't know he possessed, while La Bessiere adores Amy so selflessly that he will even help her into the arms of his rival, if that is what it takes to makes her happy. For Amy, a woman's devotion is embodied by the small band of women who follow the Legionnaires. The camera lingers on them as she watches them shoulder their burdens and trudge across the barren sand after the men they love.

Morocco is a talking picture that retains the aura of a silent film; its characters express themselves more eloquently and honestly with looks and actions than with words. They are not given to long-winded speeches, even in response to the most complicated questions. When La Bessiere asks Amy if she loves Tom, she answers, "I don't know. I hope not." Still, when she looks at him, we have no doubt about the state of her heart. Tom presents himself as an unrepentant cad. "Anybody who has faith in me is a sucker," he says, yet we later find him carving Amy's name inside a heart, as lovestruck as any earnest boy, despite the native girl perched on his knee. Madame Caesar, played by Eve Southern, rarely speaks at all, but her burning eyes follow Tom with desperate desire. The visual quality of the picture emphasizes the symbolic, from Amy's slow destruction of La Bessiere's card to the final scene, in which Amy's action, utter madness in any real world, is the only ending imaginable.

Morocco earned four Oscar nominations, including nods for Dietrich and von Sternberg. For their later Hollywood collaborations, try Shanghai Express (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil is a Woman (1935). Catch more of Dietrich at her best in Destry Rides Again (1939), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Touch of Evil (1958). Gary Cooper won Best Actor Oscars for Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952), but he was a silent film veteran whose big break came in 1926 with The Winning of Barbara Worth. Urbane Adolphe Menjou also stars with Cooper in A Farewell to Arms (1932); his other films from the 1930s include Morning Glory (1933), Little Miss Marker (1934), and A Star is Born (1937).