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Austrian Captain Karl von Raden attends the opera one evening, and meets Tania. After the performance, he takes her home, and the two of them spend the next day on a romantic outing. That evening, Karl must deliver some important plans to Berlin. Just before boarding his train, he learns that Tania is really a Russian spy. She comes to see him aboard the train, and admits that she set things up on purpose so as to meet him, but she also insists that she truly has fallen in love with him. When Karl rebuffs her coldly, she steals the plans, which leads to him being court-martialed and imprisoned. Karl's influential uncle is able to provide him with one last chance to clear his name. Written by
Writing scores for silent movies requires a considerable talent, but for some pictures the music must practically write itself. This is not to play down the efforts of the many fine score composers, but simply to say that for someone with musical ability, a picture such as The Mysterious Lady is constantly suggestive of melody, tempo and timbre, in a way that translates naturally into a musical setting.
This musical effect is, it seems, largely down to the director Fred Niblo. Niblo, an ex-Vaudevillian who married into the Cohan family, came into motion pictures relatively late in life (he first sat in the director's chair at 42), but he soon proved himself to be one of the finest and most poetic craftsmen of the cinema. The Mysterious Lady was made at a time when the talkies were beginning to muscle in, but Niblo proudly blows a trumpet blast for the dying art form. Interestingly, The Mysterious Lady actually contains a lot of examples of images filling in for sound. Sometimes this is for narrative purposes, such as the superimposition of the opera scene when Nagel plays the piano, to inform the audience of what he is playing. Other times it is purely atmospheric, such as the shot of a row of violins in the orchestra, later grimly echoed by a similarly composed shot of the drums at Nagel's degradation.
Throughout, the picture sustains a lovely rhythmic flow. The love scene between Garbo and Nagel is delicately suggested through a series of interlocking images, unspoiled by intertitles. Niblo shows complete control over the pace at any one moment, the first few minutes being frenzied and choppy, then slowing to that glorious romantic feel when Garbo is introduced in a very memorable entrance. Only once does Niblo overdo it, when he throws in a superimposition of Nagel daydreaming about assaulting Garbo the context and Nagel's uncomfortable expression are enough without this heavy-handed display.
So if Niblo was a kind of visual composer, who was his muse? Well, let's not extend a metaphor too far, but it certainly appears that Niblo was inspired to make beautiful images to complement the natural beauty of Greta Garbo. And to an admirer of fine dramatic performance Garbo is doubly beautiful because she is such an outstandingly good actress. At a period when too much screen acting was hammy and unsubtle, Garbo was refreshingly understated. To watch a Garbo picture, especially a silent one, is to witness dozens of little moments of performance genius. One example here is when her character hears the news that von Raden has been imprisoned because of her. She shows the tiniest glimmer of a reaction, enough for the audience to pick up on and understand, but not enough for her character to give herself away to those around her. Garbo captivated audiences with her mysterious allure and startling passion the X-factor that made her a phenomenal star.
Like the silent picture, Niblo's days as a director were coming to an end. Whether his decision to retire a few a few years after this was down to the sound revolution or not I am unsure. I have not seen any of the handful of talkies he made, and I simply don't know whether he gave them the same grace and musicality that we see here. What I do know, what every film buff knows, is what Greta did next. Of all Hollywood stars, Garbo's transition from silence to sound was among the most successful. Such was her power, her naturalism and her overwhelming appeal, that in spite of the 1930s demand for more earthy performers, she remained one of our brightest stars.
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