Sunday, December 8, 2013

Morocco (1930): Reckless love or loveless stability?

Title: Morocco
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Language: English (with some French and other languages)
Rating: Unrated

Morocco (film) 1930 Josef von Sternberg, director. Marlene Dietrich, cross dress, top hat.jpg
By Paramount Pictures, Josef von Sternberg, Public Domain, Link

In Marlene Dietrich's first nightclub act in Morocco, she saunters out in tux and tails, a cigarette in hand, and the crowd immediately starts booing. Maybe it's because she's a newcomer in town; maybe it's because she's in a tux and not in a more revealing costume. She takes a seat, smokes her cigarette, and looks out at them all in cool amusement. Serene and untouched, she studies them. When she moves, she's unhurried. She's got all the time in the world, she seems to say, and sooner or later they'll be wise enough to pipe down. Either way, it doesn't matter to her.

Dietrich makes Morocco worth watching. She plays Amy Jolly (pronounced with a French accent - Amie Jolie), who has come to Morocco to escape from unknown troubles in her past (we get a hint of those troubles when at one point she says to another character, "Every time a man has helped me there has been a price. What's yours?"). In Morocco, she falls in love with a l├ęgionnaire, Tom (Gary Cooper), an aimless womanizer who also falls in love with her. When they're together, they're both cool and self-contained, giving away little on the surface; she's like a cat, and he's practiced at remaining aloof from women. But when they're apart from each other, their turmoil is more evident.

In the meantime, Amy also receives the attentions of a wealthy man, Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou), who offers her tenderness and financial security. So she has to make a choice: reckless, passionate love or stability in her life.

The movie has an operatic feel, where even small gestures can be grand and sweeping. As for the acting, Dietrich is masterful, while Cooper is too stiff and wooden, speaking in a sort of growl; though English wasn't Dietrich's native tongue, she does much better, her performance captivating and her face conveying worlds of emotion in perfect stillness. Menjou does well in a thankless supporting role as a guy who knows he doesn't inspire passionate love, but can only hold out a gilded cage to the birds he wants to keep.

Although the choice Jolly needs to make in the movie can be boiled down to love vs. money (unlike an Austen heroine, she can't have both), the situation has more depth and the decision she struggles with also has implications for other areas of life beyond personal relationships. When you love something, when you have a passion for something you do, how much would you be willing to risk for it? What costs would you be willing to pay? Would you choose a safer path in life, but one in which you're possibly less alive and are perhaps setting yourself up for profound regrets?