One of the most remarkable qualities of most of the films made by Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich is their basic silliness. They are not camp, because they neither take themselves too seriously nor send themselves up with a heavy wink. Sternberg’s luminous images, Dietrich’s erotic appeal and the production resources of a major studio assure an obvious sophistication which, however, never quite obscures the underlying trashiness and doesn’t really try. The tightrope the films walk between bathos and sublimity is just one source of their fascination.
Morocco, for example, the first film made by the pair in the US, has a paper thin love-triangle plot, with Dietrich (as Amy Joly) torn between rich, sophisticated Monsieur La Bessière (Adolphe Menjou) and Légionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) the resolution of which is obvious from Brown and Joly’s first exchange of looks. There’s never any suspense about her choice, and there’s hardly any action to speak of, just a series of scenes strung together more carelessly than the pearl necklace La Bessière gives Joly that she breaks at one point. It’s clear that the film exists to let the studio show off its new star while providing her with the most exotic cushion the director can dream up.
The script provides barely any reason to move from one moment to another and within scenes, the actors’ delivery is occasionally so awkward you could drive a truck through the pauses. It is almost impossible to forget you are watching a movie, since the contrivances are out in the open, fully exposed, threatening to make the rickety structure collapse at any moment. And you couldn’t care less.
There are several reasons why. Most obviously, even after eighty-five years, Dietrich projects such a radiant, high-style image that you can take your eyes off of her only to look at the scarcely less gorgeous Cooper. (If you are familiar only with Cooper’s later performances, his youthful beauty here will be revelatory.) It’s difficult to imagine this pre-Code film getting past the censors a few years later, for while Dietrich and Cooper kiss only once and spend much time pretending not to care for each other, every look and gesture between them is practically pure sex. Joly’s choice of Brown is a given, an expression of the power of physical attraction to override common sense. With stars like Dietrich and Cooper burning up the screen, who needs plot logic?
Sternberg stages this testament to the powers of attraction with his usual, iridescently beautiful lighting in fantasized, Orientalist settings, and a slightly ironic edge. He is totally committed to this well-dressed nonsense, so that when the film ends with Dietrich running after Cooper into the desert in her high heels, the image is both ridiculous and wonderful. Indeed, wonderful because it is ridiculous, proof, if ever it were needed, that the power of the moving image, like desire itself, far exceeds any need to justify it.