Film, History, Spies, Spy 100 Project

Spy 100, #59: Ninotchka

October 4, 2010

Ninotchka (1939) is a great romantic comedy with an interesting political angle, but it’s an odd selection for the Spy 100 list, and even odder that it ranks this highly on it.  Set in Paris, the story kicks off when three comical Russian envoys arrive to sell some precious jewels to bolster the struggling communist economy.  But there’s a problem — the jewels, confiscated by communist Russia in the wake of the revolution, originally belonged to an exiled White Russian duchess, Swana (Ina Claire), who hears of what’s happening and moves to intervene.  She sets her wily friend Leon (Melvyn Douglas) onto the Russian delegation, his mission to foil the sale of the jewels and ultimately recover them.  The complications he causes leads the Russians to send another envoy, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), a stern, servile communist whose visit to the west puts her in the path of temptation.  The clever, amusing Leon is easily everything Ninotchka has been trained to resist, but as their relationship grows, her heart gradually melts, and the pair fall in love. Politics rear their ugly head, however, complicating their affair; will the Iron Curtain keep them apart?

Ninotchka has an inherently amusing tone, snappy dialogue, and an interesting political backdrop — underneath the main plot of an unlikely, forbidden romance, there’s a complex set-up involving the conflict between the victorious Reds and the ousted Whites in Russia, and the lovers’ relationship is fraught with political complications. Its presence on the Spy 100 list is a mystery to me, to say the least; there’s politics and con artistry on hand, but the classic spy story elements are at a minimum, and those elements it does display take a back seat to razor-tongued wit and starry-eyed romance.  This doesn’t make the movie any less enjoyable, though.  Garbo shows an uncanny charisma in the title role, even in the early stages, when her robotic, humorless facade is enough to make Dr. Sheldon Cooper seem human.  Her journey from communist shill to relaxed, happy westerner is a political message of the script, but she makes the transformation convincing.  Douglas is also terrific as the slick, quick-talking fellow who brings her out of her shell.  I’d hesitate to recommend it to spy film purists, but it’s likely to please Garbo fans and folks with an eye for classic cinema.

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