Thursday 16 April 2015

Movie Review: Mata Hari (1931)

A spy drama and an intense romance, Mata Hari features Greta Garbo at her best and a satisfyingly convoluted story of suspicion and enticement in wartime Paris.

It's Paris in 1917, the World War is raging and Paris is gripped by spy fever. Counterintelligence chief Dubois (C. Henry Gordon) is convinced that exotic dancer Mata Hari (Garbo) is a spy working for the Germans, but cannot prove it. After a dangerous flight over Europe, Russia's Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro), a young and handsome pilot, lands in Paris with an important message. His superior General Serge Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) introduces him to Mata, and Alexis is immediately smitten.

Mata is indeed a spy, and her stern handler Andriani (Lewis Stone) instructs her to find the contents of the messages being transported by Alexis. Both Shubin and Alexis believe that they are in love with Mata, and she has to play a dangerous game of seduction to extract information while evading Dubois' ever tightening noose.

Directed by George Fitzmaurice, Mata Hari helped to popularize the misty legend of the sexy Dutch dancer who mesmerized the Parisian upper classes while possibly passing on information to the Germans. The film features just the one dance early on to establish Mata's allure, and then invests in the power dynamics between men and women engaged in dangerous battles of sexual conquest while trading in war secrets.

Most of the film is set indoors, and apart from the ending it all takes place over a couple of days and nights as Alexis awaits his return orders. Fitzmaurice manages to generate reasonable tension from longish scenes of dialogue, efficiently introducing the characters, their motivations and the Parisian society context before settling down to chart a battle of wills between spies, lovers, and spyhunters. Mata needs to stay one step ahead of Dubois while extricating the information she needs from Shubin and Alexis, and the film is essentially a clever chess game of move and countermove, with love and sex clouding the judgement of several pieces.

The film is a showcase for the enigmatic Garbo, convincing as a slinky dancer and a conniving, quick-thinking agent. A modern performer ahead of her cinematic times, at 26 years old she commands the screen with her combination of sensuality and intelligence, and adds a small dose of vulnerability when Mata succumbs to love. The men in contrast are merely adequate, firmly stranded in the wide-eyed theatricality of the early talkie era.

The film reaches a magical peak in a prolonged sequence as Mata wraps Alexis around her fingers, gradually nudging him to forsake all that he holds sacred for the privilege of one night of pleasure. Mata ends the night owning Alexis' soul and his secrets, and he is none the wiser. Men may control all the war machines, but they are no match for the guile of one woman on a mission.

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