Automobile engineer Tom Bradley (Cooper) gets his first-ever vacation and happily leaves Detroit for two weeks in Spain.
Meanwhile, in Paris, we meet Madeleine (Marlene Dietrich), an accomplished jewel thief. She pulls off a very slick theft of an exquisite pearl necklace: she tells the jeweler her husband is a famous psychiatrist and if the jeweler will meet her at the doctor's office that evening he will receive full payment for the necklace. She then pays a call to the psychiatrist and tells him her husband, the well-known jeweler, will be visiting him that evening. She tearfully explains that her 'husband' has this problem - he presents bills to strangers for no reason. That evening at the office, Madeleine introduces the two men, then coolly departs for Spain with the necklace, leaving the doctor to deal with his 'patient', the jeweler who insists the psychiatrist owes him 2,200,000 francs!
On the road to
San Sebastian, Madeleine's car breaks down, and who should come along to give
her a lift but Tom Bradley. Tom is delighted to have such a beautiful woman
spice up his drive, unaware that she is carrying stolen property worth millions.
At border customs, Madeleine secretly slips the stolen necklace into Tom's coat pocket so when her baggage is searched there is no trouble. However, when she and Tom return to his car, she is amazed to see him take off his coat and put it away in the trunk. Thinking quickly, she soon convinces Tom he really should stop and get his coat so he doesn't catch cold; when he complies, she speeds off in his car, leaving him literally in the dust. It is only later that Madeleine discovers that he had already pulled out his coat, so she still does not have the pearl necklace.
Tom tracks her
down in San Sebastian, where she is staying with her partner-in-crime, "Uncle"
Carlos (John Halliday). Then follows a cat-and-mouse game, with the pair of
thieves trying to regain possession of the pearls without clueing Tom in to
the fact that he has them. Tom is more interested in pursuing a romance with
Madeleine, and she finds herself falling for him as well.
Eventually Tom discovers the necklace and realizes the situation. He thwarts Carlos, who finally realizes that he has lost his partner to love.
Tom accompanies Madeleine when she returns the pearls. The jeweler is so overjoyed to have the necklace back he does not press charges, and the happy couple set off to begin a new life in America.
"Desire" works not because of any particularly unusual story, but because of its stars and their interaction together. Cooper's straightforward simplicity, his naiveté tinged with stubornness, works very well with Dietrich's sophisticated exoticism. There is also humor amidst the intrigue, making this film a very watchable little gem.