Welcome to I Spy, a new column at CutPrintFilm that delves into the history of espionage capers, from psychological thrillers, political-tinged potboilers, comedies and extravagant action-adventures escapades.
This is I Spy, a column at CutPrintFilm that delves into the history of espionage capers, from psychological thrillers, politically-tinged potboilers, comedies and extravagant action-adventures escapades. For this second entry, we shall take a look at the 1931 film, Mata Hari, inspired by the real life personality.
Surveying the extensive history of espionage cinema, it is quite striking the extent to which the plots developed in said genre transpire not during actual wartime but rather periods of ideological, non-combat tension on a global scale, predominantly the infamous Cold War, which lasted from the early 1950s right up until the early 1990s. The East-West ideological struggle inspired an overwhelming number of spy thrillers, yet the fact of the matter is, countries employ secret agents during warfare as well. One of history’s legendary seeker and trader of secrets operated during WWI and hid under everybody’s nose. Her name was Margaretha Geertruida Macleod. If that doesn’t ring a bell, readers may be more familiar with her stage name as an exotic dancer: Mata Hari.
Mata Hari was Dutch born, and given that the Netherlands were a neutral state during the first World War, she was ostensibly free to travel Europe. She made a name for herself in Paris practicing the trade of erotic dancing, until of course she started flexing her muscles in cloak and dagger operations for the Germans. In the George Fitzmaurice directed movie, the titular anti-hero is played by the inimitable Greta Garbo, at a point when the character has already earned fame, fortune, and the admiration of thousands of men and women for her skills on the dance floor. Many men are fixtures in her life, some in support of her, others operating against her, while others simply admire her. Russian General Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) is secretly her boyfriend. Head of the French spy bureau Henry Dubois (C. Henry Gordon) is convinced Mata is a spy for the Germans and seeks to have her arrested. Russian pilot Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Navarro) is a young hot shot in love with her. Finally, Andriani (Lewis Stone), is the espionage ringmaster operating behind the scenes, dispatching Mata on secret missions for the Germans.
For those that don’t bristle at the sight of melodrama, Mata Hari can be taken as a sensibly enjoyable 90-minute escapade back to a time when European powers vied for geographical and ideological supremacy, with battles occurring on the grimy front lines, but also during backdoor meetings at luxurious nightclubs. In that sense, Fitzmaurice’s picture is a measurably different approach to a war film insofar as it draws battle lines in manners many tend to omit from the discussion when dissecting what constitute ‘acts of war’. For someone in Mata Hari’s position, the situation is even more precarious considering the social status bestowed upon her. Having earned the admiration of so many individuals, several of which hold positions of considerable power and influence, the protagonist’s mind is at ease with respect to the risks incurred by clandestinely operating for the Germans. She is, for all intents and purposes, a free spirit, an individual who lives every moment with a ‘devil may care’ attitude towards life. She isn’t beholden to anyone, and therefore has no qualms towards making professional and personal connections with whomever she sees fits. After all, with so many friends in high places, what’s the worst that can happen?
The film opens with a thunderous scene supporting this very theory, by which a trio of arrested soldiers are facing a firing squad in Paris. The first two are morbidly shot. Before the third bites the dust, Dubois, steadfast in his convictions of Mata Hari’s duplicity, implores the condemned man to admit that Mata has betrayed them. The man refuses, preferring to die knowing he had the pleasure of acquainting with Mata rather than betray her. Quite the hold she has on men, to put it mildly.
It should come as no surprise that one of the main reasons to watch the film is Greta Garbo. She perfectly exudes the aura of someone that has reached the peak of her powers. She is, in her mind and that of many others, on top of the world, so much so that threats from Andriani if she were to cross him are practically laughed off. Clearly, Mata has deemed herself untouchable. Swedish born Garbo plays the part to the hilt, not quite with tongue in cheek, but certainly as someone who, even when not on stage, is giving a performance of sorts. Her entire persona is so consistently heightened to the point where it doesn’t appear as if there is a different, more nuanced or subdued version of her anymore.
This all changed when young Alexis enters her life. In fact, the love story itself is one of the major elements holding the film back from greatness. Ramon Navarro is a very good looking, charming actor, but a Russian pilot he most certainly is not. What’s more, the script, penned by a quartet of screenwriters, does him no favours by painting him as a wide-eyed buck that instantly falls in love with Mata. He’s fallen in love with her before he’s even had to opportunity to see her without the ostentatious, eccentric costumes she adorns. To put it bluntly, there is barely any depth to his character, making Mata’s softening towards his advances all the more dissonant with how she’s portrayed in the early goings.
Compounding matters is the reality that, the more the plot advances, the more running time is dedicated to the romance angle, concluding in an extended finale while Mata withers away in prison, visited by a blinded Alexis (an affliction suffered when his plane crashed during a flight back to Russia). The final 10 minutes or so come across as a reprisal of The Passion of Joan of Arc, which arguably isn’t so surprising when one considers that Dreyer’s picture was released only 3 years prior.
Another curious detail that permeates the entire picture, although not one that hurts the film as much as the prior criticism, is that virtually none of the actors sound like the nationalities they are apparently playing. Ramon Navarro as Alexis sounds Mexican (guess what: he was Mexican), Lionel Barrymore sounds like the most American Russian in the history of American Russians, as does Henry Lewis sound American despite playing the head of what is supposed to be the Deuxième Bureau from France. As previously stated, this is less problematic than the dubious love angle, but nevertheless distracting early in the film.
Mata Hari feels like a case of what could have been. A shame really, especially with Greta Garbo brilliantly and deservedly earning the spotlight that shines so brightly. The film’s shortcomings thankfully don’t drag the final product too much, but one feels as if there was a great film here somewhere. Unfortunately it lost its way at some point. Mata Hari makes it to the finish line, but her wardrobe picks up a few stains during the performance.