Monday, March 22, 2010
While The Blue Angel is far and away the better of the two films Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made in 1930, my heart has always belonged to their first Hollywood production Morocco. After all, this is the film that introduced one of the most legendary teams in film history to many filmgoers. Morocco is also the work that announced that Von Sternberg and Dietrich viewed the art of film as much more than a medium to just tell a story. This was one of the truly great CINEMATIC teams in history and Morocco served as a forceful 'get on board or get out of our way' statement that intentionally abandoned so called 'substance' for a 'style' that has been copied many times over but never recaptured.
While The Blue Angel was extremely stylish and contained many of the elements that would come to define the team of Von Sternberg and Dietrich, Morocco took their visual and thematic obsessions to a whole new level. Abandoning anything resembling a realistic storyline and believable plot developments, Morocco is a seething hyper-real fantasy placing the stunning seductively strange Dietrich in the dominant sexual role while her co-star Gary Cooper is, for the first half of the film at least, placed in a more subversive spot. If the over the top ending of Dietrich following Cooper into the desert betrays this trailblazing gender bending attitude of the first half of the film it can be viewed as more of Hollywood's fault than Von Sternbergs. Indeed he and Dietrich would continue to push the envelope more and more with follow-up works like Shanghai Express and The Scarlett Empress.
Shot in an erotic black and white haze by cinematographer Lee Garmes, Morocco still packs quite a juicing wallop eighty years after its release. I still have a vivid memory of seeing the film once on the big screen and literally coming out of the theater in a total daze due to Von Sternberg's astonishingly original direction and Dietrich's stunning sexuality, a potent mixture of the demure and ferocious that seemed like it could make even the screen melt.
Marlene, who could barely speak English at the time, was nominated for Best Actress at that year's Academy Awards but lost to Marie Dressler in the mostly forgotten Min and Bill. Von Sternberg was also nominated, and lost, for Best Director. Never mind the Oscars though as Morocco still survives and still pulsates with a feverish creative heartbeat few films could even hope to approach. Morocco is ridiculous yes, but also masterful and totally sublime. Finally I suspect that even Von Sternberg would have admitted that the film is ultimately about his star and, WOW, what a star! Viewing, or even just thinking about the film to this day still leaves me breathlessly exclaiming, "Marlene, Marlene, Marlene"...