Depending on the day, my favorite movie in the world is Josef Von Sternberg’s Paramount marvel from 1930, Morocco. As is often the case with films I adore, I have a hard time working out an overarching reason for my satisfaction with Morocco. Perhaps it would be more effective to just direct you to the movie, to see for yourself what makes it so special. Either way, in the interest of finding somewhere to release my enthusiasm, here are ten reasons Morocco is a film I would love to memorize, frame by frame, and thereby impress it upon my heart for all time.
1. Marlene Dietrich's famous screen test for The Blue Angel is, in many ways, the first of the great movies the German actress made in partnership with her greatest collaborator, the American director Josef Von Sternberg. If one wants an example of movie stardom in its raw essence, one could do worse than take a look at it. She sings, in English, “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” resting her cigarette atop an upright piano, but the accompanist isn’t any good. Dietrich sings the first verse, then when she hears the pianist slip up, begins to berate him, and then flicks her ash at him. After the second try, she really loses her temper. Dietrich climbs up onto the piano and threatens to kick the poor guy, before launching into a biergarten tune. It was a set-up, of course. Von Sternberg told the pianist to flub it and see how the actresses reacted. Dietrich gets the gist right away—it’s as if she has read her director’s mind—and turns the audition itself into a fabulous scene of diva antics. She got the job, and she made seven films with Von Sternberg. All of them are extraordinary, but nowhere is their collaboration more seamless than in Morocco.
2. Since I left Los Angeles and gave up smoking the occasional joint, Morocco has become my drug of choice. It is a slow, heady film. There’s a woozy mindlessness to the movie’s attractions. It takes its time. The plot is thin, the music is awash with weepy, carnal violins, and the screen is laced with shadowy, chiaroscuro compositions. When Dietrich and Gary Cooper—who is still young, angular, fey—look at each other, time stops to a halt. Dietrich is always heavy-lidded, leaning against something; the movie is pure lethargy, a waking dream in a desert storm.
3. Amy Jolly is a singer who arrives by boat, alone. On board, she declines a man’s “help”: “Every time a man has helped me, there’s been a price.” The next time we see her, she’s already the headliner at the local nightclub. She’s not so sullen on stage. She comes on in a tuxedo—yes, it’s that movie—and sings to Legionnaire Tom Brown, just back from an excursion. They’re in love, and in Von Sternberg’s movies, love is an all-or-nothing proposition. Before the end of the film, both will give up everything for their love.
4. The tuxedo is the most memorable look that Dietrich wears in Morocco, but much has been written about her costumes in this film, and what they are supposed to tell us. However, the tux notwithstanding, Morocco is the Sternberg-Dietrich film in which the clothes matter least. It’s no Blonde Venus or The Devil Is A Woman, movies in which her extravagant costumes lend her image a touch of hilarity. Amy Jolly is never overdressed, and Dietrich was never less adorned. Nothing more was ever necessary; the insane hats, veils, capes, wigs, shoes, and frills of the later films never steal the screen from Dietrich herself. In Morocco, you get all the fire and intellect we saw in the screen test, almost divorced from a traditional plot, never refracted through Hollywood dramaturgy, and unobstructed by cumbersome costume. Before Von Sternberg’s camera, she is a pomegranate cut in half and served as is.
5. No man in cinema was ever as beautiful as Gary Cooper in the 1930’s. In Morocco, we see him as a fresh face, new to leading man parts, with only his first hit under his belt (the western The Virginian). A few years later, he would be one of the most famous men in the world, but something about the way Von Sternberg lights Legionnaire Tom Brown permits us to see Cooper the way the audiences of 1930 did; we have time to memorize his face and thereby fall in love with it. Those close-ups are the origins of the mythology of Gary Cooper, forever the man of our dreams, and therefore they are foundational texts of Hollywood stardom itself.
6. If it seems like I’m preoccupied with the superficial here, I’m guilty as charged. My thoughts about Morocco are indeed shallow, because it is a shallow film. Who needs subtext when a surface glimmers the way Morocco does?
7. From Von Sternberg’s thrilling but questionably truthful autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry: “Men wished to lay fortunes at her feet, and celebrities vied with each other to be seen and photographed with her. Tribute was collected from men of rank and fame, the most famous actors wished to have her as their partner, producers and directors couldn’t wait until they could work with her, and her circle increased to include the top writers and creators of her day. Dukes and generals and even the heads of nations wanted her to grace their tables. One journalist, quoted in one of the many books devoted to her, not only raved about her beauty but ‘rated her brains on a par with those of Napoleon, Caesar, Mussolini and Lenin.’ Opposed to this pinnacle of glory was her position on my stage. Here was no enthusiast, but a cold-eyed mechanic critical of every movement. If there was any flattery, it was concentrated in a ‘That’s fine, it will do.’ More often she listened to ‘Turn your shoulders away from me and straighten out. Drop your voice an octave and don’t lisp. Count to six and look at that lamp as if you could no longer live without it. Stand where you are and don’t move; the lights are being adjusted.’”
This absolutely boggles my mind. When I’m watching Amy Jolly and I’m trying to read every detail of the rich inner life that Dietrich is giving her, I may actually be watching her counting to six.
8. In her nightclub act, Amy walks out into the audience in her tuxedo and pulls a flower out of a beautiful woman’s hair and then lays a kiss on her. Then she sings an erotic torch song with Biblical allusions. But Amy Jolly’s transgressions are not merely brazen and sacreligious. They are chic, and she makes you feel chic.
9. Jules Furthman wrote Morocco. Now, there’s a name any movie lover would do well to memorize. We don’t know where Amy comes from, nor should we, and once we get to know her, we feel certain that she’ll be all right no matter where she ends up. Here, Furthman invents the type of free-floating, industrious, mysterious woman Dietrich would play in her further films for Von Sternberg, using scripts that Furthman lavished with attention, even though he knew that his director would pay far more attention to lighting and movement than secondary considerations like character and story. This Furthmanian woman, a sensationally moral force drifting through a mad world, would appear again later on in his writing, in marginally more realistic renderings directed by Howard Hawks: In Amy Jolly, you see the origins of Jean Arthur’s Bonnie Lee (Only Angels Have Wings), Lauren Bacall’s Slim Browning (To Have and Have Not), and Angie Dickinson’s Feathers (Rio Bravo).
10. The sublime, operatic finale of Morocco is justly famous. Tom makes a lovesick sacrifice. He tells Amy to marry her rich fiancé, since he is only a poor soldier, and besides, his unit is hours away from another march off into the desert. Earlier in the film, headstrong Amy had looked with pity at the group of Moroccan women who follow their soldier beloveds into the desert, giving up all they know in pursuit of a doomed romance. But at the end of Morocco, Amy Jolly joins the woman and walks off into the desert with only the clothes on her back, and she does so wearing spike heels. And that, reader, is why I love movies.