Neil Bahadur’s review published on Letterboxd:
"I think you're right, if God is still on speaking terms with me."
"God remains on speaking terms with everybody."
"I'm sure there's a whole lot more here than what happens on the surface."
"Love without faith, like religion without faith, doesn't amount to very much."
"Please forgive me for my lack of faith."
Questions on the meanings of faith and doubt - a development of the ideas and themes of Morocco but in this films quick pace and accessibility we may miss that it is both more complex and definitive than its predecessor. To each of Brook and Dietrich's interactions is a catagorical gesture which reveals a hidden feeling concealed by speech. This relationship grows through the film the longer they spend time together - through all the tumultuous events of the film even as they find reason to doubt it.
If 'civil war' has a place in this movie it is not in the literal events taking place, but rather in the minds and faces of all the primary characters. Dietrich & Wong are the only pure, genuine characters here - because they see no reason to uphold morals of decorum. Brook on the other hand is almost there - but he's blinded by love - the kind of jealousy and resentment - despair - Dietrich makes her interest in him quite obvious from the moment they meed, Brook often misses it or even misses it willingly, rejecting his own attachment to her for the sake and protection of his own feelings. Almost every character here is upholding some kind of facade - the primary romantic leads with their feelings, the others with facades they don't even know of, mostly moral ones.
In the midst of this moralism gone awry is Sternberg at his fastest - uncredited, Howard Hawks did a co-writing job on this movie with the great (and usual Sternberg go-to) Jules Furthman - there is more humour and snappiness than anything JVS did before or since. This manifests in several ways, resulting in visual abstraction to get around the dialogue rather than elucidate this. With this concept of hidden feelings & realities, Sternberg's expressionism is closer to Murnau than ever - once we get to the hideout, the shadows tell us the feelings the dialogue cannot! Whether this had any influence on Hawks is uncertain to me, but it's telling that once JVS became all but un-hireable in Hollywood, Furthman became the go-to screenwriter for Hawks, resulting in HH at his best: Only Angels Have Wings & Rio Bravo - among others. Here's a new way to show exposition - through cross-examination!
Yet this lighting goes farther than moods - it abstracts everything these characters thought was certain, suddenly they enter a space where 'time and life have no value,' characters become leftovers in a light play of candles, veils and shadows where truth has no choice but to be revealed. Hypocrisy is disclosed, humanity broadcasted - at one point these people established themselves by virtue of their professions, here they are nothing but people. And though the movie uses exoticism as a through line to abstraction, all the whites in this film are absurd hypocrites, it's only the Chinese who say and do what they mean! Though it is amusing that it is set during the Chinese Revolution, it's both absurd and moving that the Revolution is essentially ended by one woman's love for another, and furthermore a love that is refused disclosure by speech, instead it is turned into action! Yet it is Wong who kills Oland ultimately, not Dietrich - not necessarily offsetting this all as making a movie about 100x less racist than what was popular!
Eons more to say about this movie, but its always been difficult to write about because I just have so much fun watching it. It's the most purely enjoyable, gut-level pleasure joy, of the masterpieces! One thought, maybe I'll write more on this some other day, but in darkness & hands clasped, Dietrich (and us) learn that perhaps love and prayer are one and the same.