During World War I, Mata Hari is a German spy, working in Paris. She has already seduced the Russian general Shubin, and has now set her eyes on lieutenant Rosanov, a young up-and-coming officer. In order to get her hand on secret documents in his possession, she spends a night with him. But the secret police is on to her, only waiting to get enough evidence to arrest her. Written by
Seductively mysterious, the exotic dancer MATA HARI pays the ultimate price for being the most famous spy of World War One.
Coming only fourteen years after the execution of its title character, here is a densely plotted film given the full MGM gloss & glamour. Production values are excellent, even if the script strays a bit too much into fiction to tell its story.
Languid & languorous, Greta Garbo slinks across the screen like a large cat, almost purring her dialogue rather than speaking it. Utterly fascinating, it is easy to see why she dominated her generation & why her legend still endures. Finally coming fully alive during a penultimate murder scene, Garbo exhibits the frenetic energy of which she was capable on screen. Fortunately, she is only required to dance once, leaving to the imagination the full impact of Mata Hari's original private performances.
Ramon Novarro, who receives co-equal billing with Garbo, had been an important movie celebrity far longer than she, but her rising sun tended to obscure most other stars in her orbit and Novarro has to work hard to get much notice in their joint scenes .As always, MGM's chameleon actor (this time he plays a Russian) gives a very competent performance, but as a romantic pair they make a rather unusual couple - which simply means that Novarro's sexual ambiguity is perfectly mirrored by Garbo's intrinsic androgyny.
Lewis Stone is quite effective as a sinister German spymaster. C. Henry Gordon gives some nice moments as a tough French policeman. Lionel Barrymore is also on hand, flamboyantly overacting as a Russian general who delivers military secrets to Mata Hari in exchange for her favours; he apparently decided Garbo wasn't going to steal the entire picture and he puts up an outrageous display of ham acting.
Karen Morley & Frank Reicher appear as German agents who learn the price of becoming no longer useful to Berlin; movie mavens will recognize an uncredited Mischa Auer in the opening scene as an unfortunate victim of Mata's wiles.
Born to a prosperous hatter in The Netherlands on August 7, 1876, Margeretha Geertruida Zelle was convent schooled and later attended a teacher's college. In 1895 she married British-born Campbell MacLeod, a captain in the Dutch colonial army and lived with him in Java & Sumatra from 1897 until 1902.
After their divorce, Margeretha settled in Paris, where she changed her name to the Malay 'Mata Hari,' which means 'eye of the day.' Fabricating a mystique of exotic mysticism, the beautiful Mata supported herself quite nicely as a courtesan and erotic dancer, giving special performances around Europe to delighted clientele. Several military officers of various nations counted themselves among her lovers.
The details of Mata's involvement in espionage still remain rather vague. It's possible she entered the German Secret Service as early as 1907, but she later is thought to have worked for the French Secret Service, as well. As a citizen of neutral Holland, she was still able to travel freely after the commencement of the War and it is alleged that she garnered secrets from Allied officers for her German employers. It was the British who tipped off the French as to Mata's supposed activities while in Belgium, and she was arrested upon her return to France.
At the court martial trial, she could only be found guilty of giving outdated information to the Germans, which she claimed was entirely innocent. However, it was more than enough to imprison her for three months, before her final rendezvous with a firing squad on October 15, 1917.
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