With this romantic reverie, Marlene Dietrich made her triumphant debut before American audiences and unveiled the enthralling, insouciant persona that would define her Hollywood collaboration with director Josef von Sternberg. Set on the far side of the world but shot outside Los Angeles, Morocco navigates a labyrinth of melancholy and desire as the cabaret singer Amy Jolly (Dietrich), fleeing her former life, takes her act to the shores of North Africa, where she entertains the overtures of a wealthy man of the world while finding herself increasingly drawn to a strapping legionnaire with a shadowy past of his own (Gary Cooper). Fueled by the smoldering chemistry between its two stars, and shot in dazzling light and seductive shadow, the Oscar-nominated Morocco is a transfixing exploration of elemental passions.
Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco, the first title in Criterion’s new box set Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood, comes to Blu-ray on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1 with a new 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. This presentation makes use of a new 2K restoration scanned from a 35mm safety fine-grain held by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
This ends up being in outstanding shape, looking far better than I was expecting and raising my expectations for the rest of the set. There are still some source related problems present, as one should certainly expect, but it is shockingly minimal, damage limited primarily to some tram lines, minor scratches, and some bits of debris, but nothing I would call glaring. Though we do manage to get some surprisingly strong details the image overall can still look a bit soft, even getting fuzzier around the edges, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s a source issue or just how the film was originally shot. Film grain can be a bit heavy but it looks clean, never noisy or blocky. And though some whites can blow out a bit I thought contrast looked fantastic, with smooth tonal shifts in the grayscale. In all, despite a handful of source related hindrances, this comes up looking quite brilliant.
The lossless PCM 1.0 monaural track does what it cans but I think age ends up playing a bit factor here. The audio is a bit tinny and edgy but you can at least make out the dialogue, and the music, though a bit harsh, doesn’t sound too bad. Unfortunately, there is a very prominent crackling sound throughout, which goes up and down in volume but is never truly gone.
Criterion’s six-disc set presents a number of supplements spread across, some specific to a disc’s respective film and others offering more of a general summary of Dietrich’s and von Sternberg’s work. This review will focus specifically on the supplements available on Morocco’s disc.
Morocco ends up offering one of the more substantial selection of supplements in the set, starting with Weimar on the Pacific, a title referring to (apparently) the influx of German artists to Hollywood before and during the war, featuring scholars Gerd Gemünden and Noah Isenberg. The 29-minute feature offers an overview of Dietrich’s career, and von Sternberg’s to a much lesser extent (basically in relation to Dietrich’s). They cover her early stage days to her move to film, eventual move to Hollywood (Hitler’s rise to power played a big part in that) and her work with von Sternberg, and then the latter part of her life. It’ll work very well for those unfamiliar with Dietrich’s career, early and/or latter parts.
The disc also features a 31-minute interview with film scholar Janet Bergstrom from 2014. She discusses the film’s production and then looks at the construction of certain sequences. There’s also a quick 4-and-a-half-minute interview with Silke Ronneburg about the real Amy Jolly, the woman who served as inspiration for the character in the original novel and later played by Dietrich.
And finally, Criterion offers a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film, now called The Legionnaire and the Lady, starring Dietrich (reprising her role) and Clark Gable (now playing Tom Brown, replacing Gary Cooper). The plot is pretty much the same but since it’s radio everything must be conveyed through dialogue and because of this, and the shorter run time (it runs around 59-minutes with breaks and ads), its scenes get to the point in a much quicker fashion and pumps up the melodrama, which ruins a lot of sequences that are memorable in the film, like the apple sale bit and the ending (which gives a more definitive conclusion). Most odd, though, is the fact Dietrich doesn’t perform any numbers (other than her performing Falling in Love Again from The Blue Angel at the end), which would seem like an obvious inclusion for a radio adaptation, though I’m wondering if there was a fear people tuning in might turn to another station without the proper context (I don’t know, I’m grasping straws, but it makes little sense otherwise). Like other radio adaptations it’s a really fascinating time capsule that again just makes you more aware of the visuals in the film and how von Sternberg (in this instance) tells his stories through them.
Overall the features found in the set are good but Morocco has the best mix, nicely covering the film while also offering a good introduction to the rest of the material found on the set.
It’s a great way to start out the set. Not the strongest presentation to be found here due to source limitations, but the film still looks astonishingly good despite any limitations and features a solid set of features.