MOROCCO (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)

After their triumphant The Blue Angel in Germany, Josef von Sternberg brought his star and mistress, Marlene Dietrich, home to Hollywood—along with his wife. (Dietrich also was married.) There, they made six films together, the last two of which are brilliant, The Scarlet Empress (1934), about Catherine the Great, and The Devil Is a Woman (1935), principally written by John Dos Passos. The first in the series, Morocco, is a middling matter, with a famous, stirring finish; but it was a big hit that garnered Oscar nominations for them both.
     Dietrich plays Amy Jolly, who arrives in Mogador by fogbound ship from Paris to perform her gender-bending act in a tuxedo at Lo Tinto’s cabaret. While performing, she asks a patron for the flower that the woman is wearing, kisses the patron on the lips and tosses the flower to caddish Foreign Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper—Dietrich was also sleeping with him), who in the spirit of the gift, and a bit drunk, wears it behind his ear. Also in the audience is wealthy La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou), who aboard ship offered to keep Amy. Amy will have to choose, then, between security and passion. (Meanwhile, the wife of his commanding officer is also romantically pursuing Tom.) At the last, flicking off her high heels, she is among those women who follow the legionnaires across sands into certain danger.
     Especially given how guarded Amy has been to let her heart feel again, this ending packs an enormous wallop; but, in the main, Morocco is more notable for Lee Garmes’s (also Oscar-nominated) black-and-white cinematography than for its discontinuous story (from a play by Benno Vigny) and modest filmmaking. In extreme sunlight, flickering deep contrasts conjure a poignant evanescence: love’s volatility; the quickness of death.

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