Director: Josef von Sternberg
Stars: Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Adolphe Menjou
For whatever reason, in spite of the tremendous acclaim for the pictures produced, I never quite got the fuss over the 1930s pairing of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. The Blue Angel was fine, it seemed to me, while the likes of Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus did little to move me. I chalked it up to a differing in taste and lumped Morocco (which I believed I had seen) in with all the rest.
Just lately, in lockdown, I’ve found myself reading a wonderful anthology of essays by women writers on the subject of ‘thirst’ in film – female desire in all its manifold forms – called She Found it at the Movies (edited by Christina Newland, published by Red Press). In preparation for some of the essays I’ve been seeking out or rewatching their subjects. Lauren Vevers has an essay in the collection on the subject of Marlene Dietrich. I flicked through the pages quickly and spied the title Morocco (I’ve still not read her piece; it’s next on my To Do List; deliberately saving it so as to not bias or plagiarise without thinking). It seemed like a perfect opportunity to revisit.
Well, either my memory isn’t what it once was or I barely paid attention on previous viewing, because what I found was a hazy, scorching revelation of a movie. One of the sexiset and horniest films I’ve ever seen, and 90-years-old this year, to boot. Of course, it is not an explicit film, but it smolders in so many other ways, its sex appeal heavy in the air like the desert heat of it’s North African setting.
Based on the book Amy Jolly by Benno Vigny, Dietrich plays the titular French performer, arriving in the desert city just as the Foreign Legion marches in to camp. She takes her vaudeville act to the stage at a rowdy night spot, singing in French, dressed in a tuxedo that oozes queer sex appeal, smoking on a cigarette as she engages aloofly with the audience. As is customary at this hostile venue, the crowd boos and catcalls her act as she begins, but an immediately smitten soldier – Légionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) – by turns threatens and encourages his fellow audience members until they are clapping and cheering her. The song is so-so, but the presence of Dietrich as Amy is bewitching and, accentuating the gender-bent delights of the heady scene, the peak of her act is a kiss on the lips with a female audience member. As captivating screen performances go, its an all-timer.
Amy becomes involved with Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou), an older socialite of aristocratic demeanour, but who exudes precisely zero sex appeal. There is no chemistry between them and it is clear that the marriage will represent financial security for Amy, if not love. When he initially gives her his address, she tears it up and casts it overboard. She comes to have some affection for him, but the hot restlessness that dominates the remainder of the picture is absent in their exchanges. Amy instead finds herself drawn more and more to Tom, chasing him across the country and, eventually, out into the desert, where both their fates are left precariously in the balance.
Curiously, Amy’s unknown fate is prognosticated much earlier by a sailor on the ship she arrives on (a vessel masked in fog, arriving from who knows where). When La Bessiere asks who she is, the sailor refers to her as a “suicide passenger”, elaborating that she is a “one way ticket [who will] never return”. An aura of doom follows her, though we leave her with a greater sense of hope than this officer affords.
von Sternberg brings us a Morocco out of a mirage. The film feels as though it is rippling at us out of a haze of lies and itching dreams. This is not a realistic depiction of a city, but one conjured out of a memory or straight from the imagination. This sense of the woozy is embedded into the very designs of the sets, which themselves often feel as though they’re melting, or oozing into one another. It’s a city disconnected from time and the rest of the world. A kind of erotic snowglobe or sexually primed afterlife.
There are other saucy offerings knitted into the fabric of the film. Though it pre-dates the enforcement of the Hays Code, Morocco knows it is more sensual to suggest or allude than to outright show or say. Early in the picture, Tom flirts with a Spanish girl who quizzically raises seven fingers toward him (negotiating a price for her company?). When Tom’s superior asks what he’s doing with his fingers by reciprocating, Tom replies, “Nothing. Yet.” The insinuation is scandalous. Then there’s Amy’s second performance; a song in English about the apples of Adam. She flirts with Tom in the audience, sitting beside him, offering him her fruit. Enaging the humour of the lads surrounding him, Tom assures her that he always pays for it, while the symbolism of the apples is impossible to deny or ignore.
Amy’s ultimate decision to go after Tom is one riddled with complexities. For one, it’s a rejection of La Bessiere and the higher class of life that he represents. He may have riches, but there’s no passion there for her.
Another question is how we view this turn in Amy, who was initially presented to us as a typical Dietrich woman; strong, cool, unwavering. The final act of the film sees her scurrying after her conscripted love. Not exactly a feminist pursuit. But perhaps it is, in its own way. Amy chooses to prioritise her feelings and the love, passion and, yes, sex, that Tom’s company promises. She doesn’t resign herself to the loveless companionship of La Bessiere. She wants more than that and she’s going after it. There is empowerment there, and it’s hot and sexy, just like this movie.
So, if you please, allow me a lie down. I have an essay to read and ice cold water to thirst for.