Tuesday, July 17, 2007


This is a wildly luscious Technicolor treat for the eyes; whether it has much to engage the mind is debatable. Domini (Marlene Dietrich) has devoted her life to nursing her sick father and when he dies, she returns to the convent where she grew up; she is unhappy and restless, and seeks guidance from the Mother Superior (Lucile Watson), who suggests she take a pilgrimage of the soul through the Sahara desert. Meanwhile, in a Trappist monastery in Northern Africa, a visiting Legionnaire (Alan Marshal) compliments the famous liqueur that is made there, but that very evening, it's discovered that the monk who makes the drink (Charles Boyer) has fled, though no one knows why. In the Algerian town of Beni-Mora, local opportunist Batouch (Joseph Schildkraut) gloms onto Dietrich, showing her the sights and such, and while in a club they a sexy dancer baiting a nervous looking Boyer, who is clearly untutored in the ways of the flesh (or even the ways of nightclubbing). When a knife fight breaks out, Dietrich and Boyer escape the melee, begin hanging out together, and soon fall in love, though he keeps his monastery background a secret. A seer who reads fortunes in the sand (John Carradine) tells Dietrich that her trip into the desert will bring her great joy but also warns her against some dark fate. She and Boyer marry, use their desert journey as a honeymoon, and are sexily, ecstatically happy for a time. One night, Legionnaire Marshal, lost with his small patrol in the desert, finds their camp and recognizes Boyer, and everything unravels for the duo. Boyer confesses that he turned his back on both God and the monastery (since now the famous liqueur can no longer be produced since only Boyer knows the formula) and Dietrich, with the "Ave Maria" playing in the background, insists he do the right thing and go back, even though it means their separation; she tearfully assures him that they will eventually be together in "the other world--the real and lasting world."

While watching the movie, I had this dual-reality thing going on: the plot and dialogue are not especially strong (though the actors try hard), but because everything looked so damned ravishing, I kept imagining I was watching a different film; I was almost in a "waking dream" state watching a phantom movie that was better than the one that was really playing out. The narrative is a cross between a lusty romance and a spiritual quest, and the colorful and occasionally outlandish visuals do a nice job of catching that tension. All the locations, especially the convent and the church in which the marriage takes place, are gorgeous, as are all of Dietrich's costumes--the standout for me was her metallic silver gown (which might not be the best choice for the Sahara Desert). The beginning of the end of the couple's happiness, when Marshal, the bad news messenger, arrives, takes place during a gloriously artificial nighttime scene, played against a midnight blue sky filled with sparkling stars. Actually, the color scheme of the film is relatively subdued (reminding me a bit of how color was used in Michael Powell's BLACK NARCISSUS) with blues, beiges, and oranges standing out. Some of the exteriors were shot in a real desert in Arizona, and for the most part, the real desert and the studio desert meld together well.

The dialogue is all just too melodramatic and obvious, as when Dietrich keeps repeating like a mantra, "No one but God and I know what is in my heart." (She may only say this twice, but it seems like it's uttered every 15 minutes or so.) The actors do the best they can, though Boyer always looks a bit *too* stoic, like he might have started chuckling at the improbability of it all as soon as the director yelled, "Cut!" Dietrich, as always, is fabulous, with great coloring and lighting. Schildkraut plays Batouch as one of those not-quite-gay but not-quite-straight companions like Erik Rhodes in GAY DIVORCEE or Ramon Navarro in THE BARBARIAN (though that character does "come out" as a heterosexual). Henry Brandon (the title villain in DRUMS OF FU MANCHU) plays his brother; C. Aubrey Smith is a priest who watches over Dietrich (his bushy eyebrows are less dramatic in Technicolor); Basil Rathbone plays a dashing count (frequently seen on horseback)--it feels like the character was written to be a major supporting part, but Rathbone ends up with little to do. I like this movie despite myself, and will certainly watch it again for its visual splendors, and because it makes Dietrich, who always looks good on screen, look great. [TCM]

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