Morocco (1930)

Morocco (1930), directed by Josef von Sternberg.


You'd better go now. I'm beginning to like you.

Newly arrived singer Marlene Dietrich has a job in a nightclub frequented by Legionnaires, including rangey American Gary Cooper. The first scenes of the film are all about propositions, both subtle -- as with glances at the club -- and blunt, as when rich guy Adolphe Menjou offers his card to Dietrich when they are still on the ferry boat: "Anything I can do for you. Anything at all". (She tears it up).

The story is a romantic melodrama set in a place where death is near. The agreeable rich man wants her, but she'd rather have the tall soldier and he's not cooperating.

I always note those classic actresses who exhibit confident and unsqueamish sexuality, and have suggested Deborah Kerr and Joan Bennett as examples, but no one can match Dietrich is this regard. The precise way she moves, the flash of her eyes, it's like she's cutting the film around her.

And she can do it while wearing men's clothes.

Which makes the plot turn even more effective: she has fallen in love, no longer strictly in control, and plays the second half with a strange combination of toughness and vulnerability. It's the damnedest thing.


There's a foreign legion of women, too. But we have no uniforms, no flags, and no medals when we are brave, no wound stripes when we are hurt.

I've noticed that the quality of cinematography declined for a while when sound came in. Quoting the wikipedia:


Sternberg was the first director to attain full mastery and control over what was essentially a new medium by restoring the fluidity and beauty of the late silent period. One of the key elements in this was his understanding of the value of silence itself. Morocco contains long sections sustained only by its stunning visual beauty, augmented with appropriate music and aural effects. Sternberg was the first artist to make an authentic virtue of the arrival of sound. (Charles Silver)

Lee Garmes (The Desperate Hours (1955), Nightmare Alley (1947)) is the cinematographer, with an uncredited Lucien Ballard assisting. The composition of light and shadow is very fine.

Criterion has this on Blu-ray now, but my thumbnails are from their DVD, which has a soft image.