With this being Marlene Dietrich’s only Oscar nominated performance, I’m sure modern audiences put a lot of pressure on it and come in with high expectations. That’s not fair, given that she was still a young actress at that point and this happens to be one of her first English-language films. So it’s not a career best performance (from what I’ve seen, I’d give Witness for the Prosecution that honour), but it sure makes for a special nomination.
Marlene plays Amy Jolly, a singer that arrives in Morocco and starts working in a night club. It’s here that she meets a handsome legionnaire and falls in love with him. While she is courted by a rich older man, she simply can’t get over her feelings for the soldier. It’s not a very tragic role, but it does have its key dramatic moments; also, it gives Marlene the chance to sing, something that people from the era seemed to think she was good at.
Marlene creates the character as a quiet, solitary, almost mysterious woman; you won’t see her laugh and she almost never smiles. While this makes the character feel dull at times, it lets us believe that Amy has led a rich emotional life and it gives the impression she is an experienced woman who has seen plenty of things during her lifetime.
The main thing that defines the character throughout the film is her passion for the legionnaire, played by a gorgeous young Gary Cooper. While we can easily believe her crush on him, a complete love story feels unjustified and forced in by the poor writing. Unfortunately, this unconvincing romance is the foundation both for the film and Marlene’s performance, and it ends up affecting the performance.
Marlene tries her best: her desperation is played with a lot of talent and you can notice how she changes everytime he’s around, there’s no need for words. But while I appreciate Marlene’s effort, it’s all for an unconvincing cause: such an experienced, controlled woman would not lose her mind for a man she’s seen just once or twice.
But as I said: the vulnerability is beautifully played, with Marlene’s sad, expressive eyes as the winning element of the performance. To me, the overall performance lacks tears or it lacks joy, it’s too quiet to be considered a great one. The occasional levels of intensity do not help it rise to a fully satisfying level; during the whole film I still felt like something was missing.
I won’t spend time writing about the kissing scene, as it doesn’t define at all the performance; the musical numbers didn’t impress me either, and even those felt strange and restrained. It’s an unusual performance for Oscar to go for, a mysterious one that I will probably remember more fondly than my rating suggests: judging it as objectively as I can it’s a strong .