What happened to that top-secret egg salad recipe? As Appellate Judge James A. Stewart tells it, there was this beautiful, serpentine woman who came to his room...
"A spy in love is a tool that has outlived its usefulness."—Lewis Stone as Andriani
"Mata Hari" was Margarite Gertrude Zelle, an Oriental-style dancer in Paris during World War I, who took a stage name meaning "eye of the day." She was executed by a firing squad, accused of eyeballing secrets during her rounds as a courtesan. Her story grew in legend, then got a romantic take in this Greta Garbo vehicle, which fictionalizes the spy's career.
Facts of the Case
The movie opens with a title card setting the scene in 1917 France (an echo of Garbo's silent career), then reveals a firing squad about to execute a man. Secret Service chief Dubois (C. Henry Gordon, Scarface) says the lovely Mata Hari is to blame for the man's fall. Meanwhile, young Russian aviator Rosanoff (Ramon Navarro, The Outriders), tired after a mission, gets a second wind from the chance to see Mata Hari perform.
We get only one dance from Garbo as Mata Hari, near the opening. The glimpses of skin are hardly shocking today, but the scene is still sensual as she slithers across the stage. Her exotic movements remind one of a tempting snake here, as does a scene later in Rosanoff's rooms, where she entices him to break a vow and put out the Madonna's holy lamp as she reclines, looking up at him. After the performance, we see the famously aloof Garbo as she heads upstairs, pulling a fur coat close to her, and politely but briefly talks with a female admirer.
Rosanoff gets his chance later on at the gaming tables, when a woman offers a ring Mata Hari admires to get money to gamble. He buys the ring "as a token of my admiration." It's suggested he gets quite a chance, but in the morning, she barely knows him. "Last night, you told me that you loved me," he says. "Oh, well, that was last night," she answers.
Don't worry. There's still a spy caper, complete with Dubois trailing cars, and a great moment with Andriani (Lewis Stone) as he talks with Mata Hari in his office. There's a scream outside. "We are dispensing with Carlotta's services. She seems to resent it," he tells Mata Hari, hoping to keep her in line. Papers put into Rosanoff's incapable hands are the MacGuffin which drives the action.
Garbo presents herself as a teasing, bold manipulator, especially with Shubin (Lionel Barrymore, It's A Wonderful Life), a Russian general who plots with her. She torments him by hinting at the possibility that Dubois might search her rooms and discover his collaboration, her smile suggesting that she's laughing at his foolishness. Her body language is that of temptation in Rosanoff's rooms, as the space between Mata Hari and Rosanoff disappears, making him unlikely to protest as she kisses him. She still plays for our sympathies, however, as she writes a note to him before sneaking out, a wistful hint of actual fondness on her face. She relights the Madonna's lamp as she leaves, signaling a genuine regret for her actions.
Lionel Barrymore is a portrait of cowardice as the oft-manipulated Shubin, caught between Dubois and Mata Hari. Rosanoff may be a bold aviator, but he's full of naive bluster as played by Navarro, falling in love at first sight with the beautiful dancer, even as she hints that she is not what she seems.
Most of the time, the DVD transfer here is good. The scene in which Dubois searches Rosanoff's rooms is way too dark, and there's one scene early on where the print shakes and blurs. Faces are occasionally washed out as well. You'll still see the glow (created by lighting) around Garbo's lovely face, though. The sound is low, losing an occasional line, but mostly clear.
The only extra here is the theatrical trailer, which features an extensive scene of Garbo performing as Mata Hari as tantalizing teasers flash across the screen—"Her kisses sent thousands to their death…" Some information on the real Mata Hari behind the legend would have been great. Too bad.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Garbo's Mata Hari is obviously a cinematic concoction, looking glamorous and exotic even as she makes "quiet" calls on her prey. How does a glamorous dancer slip from place to place without notice? It's also quite ridiculous that a professional seductress could fall in love so readily with the young aviator Rosanoff. Even if you bought that much, her final lover's deception of Rosanoff is just too much to believe.
Mata Hari was made, of course, as a showcase for Garbo. The larger-than-life character of Mata Hari provided an opportunity to put her beauty, her silent-screen mannerisms, and her accent to good use. It's a throwback to her silent-screen vamp roles, but one that gives her room to put her own personality into it by creating sympathy for the devilish Mata Hari.
While the movie has plenty of cliches to laugh at, it boasts strong performances—and shots of Garbo's beautiful bare back. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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