Before the exoticism of Casablanca, Algiers, or even Road to Morroco, there was Josef Von Sternberg’s just plain Morocco but it’s hardly a run-of-the-mill romance. Far from it.
Although it involves soldiers, it’s also hardly a war film but instead set against a backdrop that presents an exotic love affair as only Sternberg could. With a sultry Marlene Dietrich matched with a particularly cheeky Gary Cooper, it instantly looks to be an interesting dynamic because they couldn’t be more different.
She, a radiant German beauty with an evocative pair of eyes to go with a somewhat sullen demeanor. He, America’s ruggedly handsome ideal of what a man should be. And it in Sternberg’s film neither of them is what we’re used to.
He’s a renegade soldier in the French Foreign Legion. She’s a cabaret singer (that hasn’t changed) but she also manages to be French, not German. Somehow it’s easy enough to disregard because it’s not necessary to get caught up on the particulars.
All that matters is that they both find themselves in Morocco. He is traipsing through town with his division and spends some free time taking in her floor show along with the rest of the rowdy masses. Neither one of them has found someone good enough for them — they’re equal of sorts. He’s a gentleman cad if you will and she’s hardly an upstanding woman, making a living in a dance hall but there’s more to her. It’s hinted that she once had love, perhaps.
It takes so long for them to actually speak to each other but they’re flirting from the first moment they lay eyes on each other. They say so much through simple expressions all throughout the cabaret show. Things proceed like so. She slips him a flower, then an apple, and finally a key. At this point, he gets the drift and we do too.
Later that evening he winds up at her flat and they spend their most substantial time together. It’s full of odd exchanges, meandering conversations that run the risk of sounding aloof. In fact, their entire relationship is replete with oddities.
Another man (Adolph Menjou) is smitten with Amy but he’s never driven to jealousy. He’s good-natured and generous in all circumstances. People like him must only drift through the high societies.
She holds onto some wistful longing for the tall dashing Legionnaire who drifted through her life. But she’s slow to act. Meanwhile, he hardly seems to take it as a blow to his love life when she resigns to stay behind. After all, he’s quite the ladies’ man. He probably doesn’t need another woman. He’s always got several draped over each arm.
Morocco is a film interesting for the spaces that it creates and not necessarily for the story it develops. Visually, by the hands of the director and then simultaneously by Cooper and Dietrich as they work through their scenes both together and apart. Though it might in some ways lack emotional heft, its stars are still two invariably compelling romantic stars of the cinema.
Somehow it still manages to be quite lithe and risque when put up next to its contemporaries. It exudes a certain mischievousness of the Pre-Code Era. It’s not so much licentiousness and debauchery but it wishes to suggest as much. It can be implied without actually going through all the trouble of showing it.
Dietrich sums it up perfectly in her little diddy about Eve (What am I bid for my apple/ the truth that made Adam so wise? On the historic night/ when he took a bite/ they discovered a new paradise). In essence, the world got a lot more exciting when sex and deceit were brought into the equation. Maybe she misses the implications the Fall of Man but that’s precisely the point. Still more Pre-Code sauciness case and point.
In the final moments, where Dietrich abandons her heels and goes slinking across the sand chasing after her man, it feels less like a romantic crescendo or even a tragic turn and more like a ploy by the director to make his leading lady the focal point of his story one last time. She is granted the final bit of limelight. Because in many ways Gary Cooper could not win when it came to upstaging Marlene Dietrich orchestrated by her devoted partner/director Sternberg. Thus, Morocco turns out to be a rather curious love story different than some of the more typical Hollywood fare.