During her signature number in Morocco—“Quand l’amour meurt”—cabaret singer Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) gets mercilessly booed by the men in the crowd. Perhaps it’s because she’s not showing enough skin; perhaps it’s for the double injury of covering up by wearing a man’s tuxedo and top hat. Whatever the case, as the jeers cascade over her, Amy just casually stands on stage, smokes, and stares them down. (She eventually wins them over too.)
It’s the movie’s highlight, which unfortunately comes far too soon. Much of the rest of Morocco—the second collaboration between Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg (and their first film in Hollywood)—diminishes Amy’s defiance. In the crowd that night is a playboy legionnaire named Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), who catches Amy’s eye. Flirtations lead to more serious feelings, and despite being simultaneously wooed by a wealthy businessman (Adolphe Menjou), Amy engages in a game of emotional cat and mouse with Tom. Too often, he’s the cat.
I suppose this would be understandable if we felt the reason for Amy’s ardor. A lengthy sequence in her dressing room later that night intellectually makes the case for these two as well-matched lovers: both have traveled to the ends of the earth to escape troubled pasts. (Amy tells Tom there is also a “legion of women,” which is visually referenced by von Sternberg in a later parallel sequence that cuts back and forth between the soldiers marching out of town and the “rear guard” of local women who follow them.) So the logic is there, but none of the passion. The scene, like much of the film, is full of long, airless pauses (the lack of a musical score doesn’t help), which aren’t filled by any sort of chemistry between the actors. Only seven years into his career, Cooper can’t seem to fathom offering anything other than the blunt drawl that he had already used on a number of Westerns. Overplaying the cowboy act, the performance offers no hint that Tom might actually be willing to hang up his spurs.
Much of Morocco diminishes Amy’s defiance.
For her part, Dietrich gives a grand performance that’s gradually diluted by the narrative. That number in the tux is a stunner, as much for its defiance of gender norms (in 1930!) as for its musicality. Then there is a second number, “What Am I Bid for My Apple?,” in which she sells fruit to the nightclub crowd while wearing a feather boa. When one man grabs the boa, she turns to give him a pitiless stare, pauses for a crucial moment, then yanks it back into her possession. Like Lola Lola in The Blue Angel, Dietrich’s first film with von Sternberg, Amy is a sketchy nightclub act who considers herself an artist. When Tom asks her if she’s tired of the stage, she immediately answers, “No.” The suggestion is that her art is just fine; the venues are the issue.
Morocco itself puts Dietrich in an undeserving venue. As the movie goes on, Amy’s infatuation with Tom neuters her and makes her more boring (note that she stops performing at the club). Our final image of her, while lusciously filmed by von Sternberg, is one of pathetic subservience. And while we’re given visual clues that Tom is equally smitten—we see him carving Amy’s name into the table at a tavern—nothing in Cooper’s performance makes us believe it. In the end, he never really gives anything up for Amy’s sake, but instead registers as a callous cowpoke. Oh well, we’ll always have “Quand l’amour meurt.”