If you want to understand the mystery of the movies, then you should take a long look at Josef von Sternberg's MOROCCO.
I use the term "take a long look" deliberately here because looking is, after all, the primary act of moviegoing. MOROCCO tells the story of a romance between a saloon singer played by Marlene Dietrich and a Legionnaire played by Gary Cooper. You don't really need to know more about the plot because the film isn't about the plot. It's about looking at these two people, particularly Dietrich.
There was a period there in the twenties and thirties where American moviegoers had a collective crush on exotic foreign beauties like Garbo and Dietrich. I hesitate to call it a fad--because Garbo and Dietrich were great stars--but it's fair to say that American audiences soon moved on to more wholesome American girls. (Ingrid Bergman was a great foreign beauty, of course, but she wasn't exotic. She was the girl next door by way of Stockholm. That explains why Americans turned on her after her sex scandal in the fifties. No one would have been scandalized to find out that Dietrich had gotten pregnant from an affair.) Dietrich fell out of fashion around about the time Americans as a whole became exhausted by events in Europe, especially from her native Germany.
But look at MOROCCO and you can see the cultural moment that made Dietrich a sensation. The movie itself watches her, lingers on her. 1930 was early into the era of talkies, and it's important to keep that in mind as you watch the film. Von Sternberg paces things slowly, deliberately. He expects you to look at pictures he gives you, almost as if you were staring at a photograph or a painting. There are many moments where the primary thing happening onscreen is the play of light and shadow, or a wisp of smoke, or a face.
The most famous scene in the movie is the musical number that Marlene sings while dressed in a tux and top hat. This is pure 1930 sexual androgyny, before the Production Code came in and sanitized everything. Marlene struts around and takes a flower from a pretty girl and gives her a kiss. And not a peck on the lips either. A kiss. The crowd roars its approval. Steamy stuff.
What's interesting, though, is that the strutting confident performer of the musical number is a contrast to the touchingly vulnerable woman Dietrich gives us in the rest of the movie. In her best roles, Dietrich always combined that hard, sexy exterior with a sense of the wounded soul underneath.
Gary Cooper gets less attention from his director than his costar does, but the camera loves him, nevertheless. Not yet thirty when he made this film, Cooper was in the glory of his youth and beauty. The older he got, he would take on outsized importance as an American symbol--and, of course, his best remembered role would come in HIGH NOON when he was 51--but as a young man Cooper cut a dashing, transcontinental figure. Always distinctly American, he was nevertheless a man of the world. His lithe body and fine-boned face were a perfect fit for the delicate mood play that is MOROCCO. He's already got that jittery aversion to words which would only deepen as he got older, but he's beautiful enough and inaccessible enough to be a perfect fit for Dietrich.
The mystery of the movies is the looking. Looking at human beings who don't look back, who let themselves be observed, who are projected tall and wide on a wall in the dark in shimmering silver light. The more I see MOROCCO the more I see this mystery at play.