MATA HARI (George Fitzmaurice, uncredited, 1931)

From the sculpted, stylized moves of her erotic dance in a Paris nightclub to her departure from prison to face a French firing squad, Greta Garbo, the most beautiful creature ever to grace cinema and its greatest actress, rivets attention, sparks and thrills the senses and, finally, caresses the soul with solemnity and tenderness as Mata Hari, the famous German spy whose downfall is that she falls in love. One of the most deeply affecting moments in the movies is shared by Mata Hari and her lover, Russian courier Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff, now blind after a plane crash; she places his hand on her face and tells him, “Here are your eyes.” (Garbo was approached to play Mrs. Paradine, who became her blind military husband’s eyes, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, 1947.) Incidentally, the First World War espionage plot of Mata Hari is set in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Rosanoff rhymes with Romanov. Coincidental? Meaningful?
     Primarily written by Benjamin Glazer (between Oscars) and Leo Birinski, with additional dialogue by Doris Anderson and Gilbert Emery, George Fitzmaurice’s film is clunkish and mostly unbelievable—although it doesn’t really ask to be believed. It is history as swank fantasy, as fairy tale. Unlike Josef von Sternberg’s Mata Hari-film earlier the same year, the stunning Dishonored starring Dietrich, it spares us the sight of Mata Hari’s execution. Alexis, when we leave him, believes that his beloved is at hospital for a surgical procedure. In a way, it all ends happily ever after.
     Although Ramon Novarro is laughably inept as Alexis, Lewis Stone is brilliantly cold as Mata Hari’s chief, C. Henry Gordon is expert as the head of the French Secret Service, and Karen Morley is briefly shattering as Carlotta, another German spy.

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