Sunday, November 29, 2015

Film Review: Morocco

*** 1\2 (out of ****)

The characters in "Morocco" (1930) sure talk a lot but they don't say anything.

"Morocco", released by Paramount Studios, was directed by the famous German filmmaker Josef von Sternberg and stars his greatest muse and collaborator Marlene Dietrich. "Morocco" was the second movie (of seven) the two worked on together, coming after "The Blue Angel" (1930).

In "The Blue Angel" and the other von Sternberg movies starring Ms. Dietrich, she would usually play a man-killer, a temptress who would manipulate men with the allure of sex and bring about their downfall from society and dignity.

That is what makes "Morocco" so interesting. It is almost a reversal. Ms. Dietrich possesses many of the traits her character had in "The Blue Angel" but this time around she may have met her match. "Morocco" could be viewed as retaliation against her character in "The Blue Angel". There may not have been a production code in effect when "Morocco" was released but director von Sternberg may have punished the character in the same way a production code may have. "Morocco" is not about man's downfall but rather Ms. Dietrich's character's downfall.

"Morocco" could be described an a dramatic-romance. It is a three-way love story which follows the usual Hollywood convention of a woman caught between two men. One man is rich, one man is poor. The woman is presented as a gold digger. She uses men to further advance herself. Naturally the rich men can offer her what she wants; money, security, social standing, but, she loves the poor man. What to do? This was a common theme in Depression Era cinema.

The woman is a cabaret singer, Amy Jolly (Dietrich), the poor man is a French Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) and the rich man is La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou). They will all meet in 1920s Morocco.

Amy and Tom appear to be two sides of the same coin. Amy has a reputation of using men. She likes to be in demand and in control. No man will control her. She has never loved a man. She doesn't see men as something to love. She would never allow herself to be put in that vulnerable position of having to need someone. So, she puts up a front. She is a cold woman, a shrewd business woman. Tom likes to present himself as a ladies man. He joined the legion to forget his past. He also puts up a front that he doesn't need anyone either. No woman will ever control him.

Tom first sees Amy at a nightclub she is working at and there is an immediate attraction. An attraction so strong Amy slips Tom a key to her room. Both of them view the other as an easy conquest. But, are the two falling in love with each other? Can these two people love anyone?

That is the interesting subtext underneath "Morocco". Both characters are far too proud. Both characters must keep up their front. How can these two battering rams love each other? Which one of them would dare admit it first? And so, the characters speak in circles. They talk to each other but they don't say anything. They each play their roles as is expected of them. Cool and casual. Each independent.

As you watch "Morocco" you will notice each of the three lead characters at one point in the movie says they are in love but no one says it to the person they are in love with. Amy privately says she loves Tom. Tom privately says he loves Amy. La Bessiere tells Amy he loves her but she never says it back. Isn't that the way it is in real life? No one ever says what they mean because of fear of rejection.

Because "Morocco" was released in 1930 it is what is now commonly referred to as a "pre-code" movie. These movies were usually much more explicit in their handling of sex. Granted they are mild when compared to today's movies, but a lot is implied when compared to movies released after 1934, when the code was enforced. Look closely at the sequence when we first see Amy perform at the nighclub. Amy is dressed as a man in a tuxedo (a staple for Ms. Dietrich) singing a song. All the men in the room are enchanted by her. One man calls her over for a drink, she accepts. At the table is a woman who stares at Amy. She finds her appearance humorous. Amy reverses the situation by giving the woman a flirtatious glance and then leans in and kisses the woman. Remember what is happening here. Amy is dressed as a man. She behaves as a man and kisses the woman. Amy is not a man though. She is a woman. Is Amy a lesbian? Two women have just kissed each other. Is Amy just playing another role? See how the gender lines are being blurred here?

The movie does not keep it a secret that both Amy and Tom sleep around. Why do you think Amy gave Tom a key to her room? To paint? It is even implied a married woman has been having an affair with Tom. You just didn't see this kind of thing in movies from the late 30s into the 40s.

Of all the collaborations between Ms. Dietrich and von Sternberg I have routinely said "Morocco" and "The Blue Angel" are my favorites. Both movies showcase different sides of Ms. Dietrich's acting range. In "Morocco" there is much more vulnerability, more sensitivity. In "The Blue Angel" she is more stern and plays "the bad girl". I have to admit, it is always much more fun to see Ms. Dietrich play the temptress.

This leads to another way to interpret "Morocco". Lets assume I am correct and the movie is about the pride of these two characters as you watch the movie and see the final image, what does it tell us? For one thing, it tells us, in order for a relationship to work, one must give up their pride. It tells us, sometimes the loves we love don't love us back. And what does it specifically tell us about gender roles? Which one has to give in first? Which one has to make the greater sacrifice?

Also, we must remember when "Morocco" was released, in 1930 during the Depression. This was a time in history when several movies and songs told people love will keep us together and get us through the bad times. Ask yourself, do you see that message anywhere in this movie?

Josef von Sternberg was no stranger to making bold films which challenged society's conventions. His best movies, I would agrue, are the ones with Ms. Dietrich, but, one cannot deny the brilliance of the silent movie "The Last Command" (1928). Nearly all of von Sternberg's movies are about characters falling from grace and submitting themselves to the control of another. In this sense it is not that strange to compare the movies of von Sternberg to another German filmmaker, who would come along decades later, Rainer Werner Fassbiner, who often had the same dynamic in his movies. Proving the influence von Sternberg had on the world of cinema.

"Morocco" would go on to earn four Academy Award nominations including nominations for best director (von Sternberg) and actress (Dietrich). Unfortunately Ms. Dietrich would lose that year to Marie Dressler for her performance in "Min and Bill" (1930) and von Sternberg would lose to Norman Taurog for his directing in the Jackie Cooper vehicle "Skippy" (1931). Looking back on it, all these years later, it is safe to say, these were big very big mistakes on the part of the Academy.

If you are new to the cinematic world of Josef von Sternberg and / or Marlene Dietrich, "Morocco" is a nice place to start. You will see two masters at work. Watch "Morocco" alongside "The Blue Angel".