Spy 100, #86: Mata Hari

Mata Hari (1931) is, believe it or not, the second-oldest film on the list, and unfortunately it really wears its age. The film takes the real life legend of Mata Hari (a dancer of Dutch descent and a notoriously promiscuous courtesan) and spins a tragic love story into its World War I era spy scenario.

A naïve, idealistic young Russian pilot named Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro) falls for Mata Hari (Greta Garbo) on first sight, and proceeds to shamelessly pursue her. Meanwhile, General Shubin (Lionel Barrymore), who is also helplessly smitten with her, is approached by Dubois (C. Henry Gordon), the head of French intelligence. Mata Hari, says Dubois, is spying for the Germans and a threat to the French and Russian war effort. Shubin’s largely unrequited love protects Mata Hari from his suspicion — until her relationship with Rosanoff, who becomes a target of German intelligence, comes to his attention. The question of whether or not Mata Hari is betraying the allied cause is ultimately trumped by the story of her love for the innocent Russian officer.

For me there are only two reasons this one made the Top 100 list. One is Garbo, who possesses a unique screen charisma even by today’s standards; her performance is perhaps more intriguing than the twists of the plot. The other, I suspect, is the sheer legendary nature of Mata Hari in the history of spydom. Indeed, “Mata Hari” is virtually synonymous with “female spy” in the vernacular. One can see why a history magazine would want to reference her in a spy film retrospective issue.

But as the magazine is quick to point out, Mata Hari the film has very little to do with Mata Hari the actual person. The fictional love story at the movie’s core is at odds with the  actual, historical events, which are actually more interesting and complicated than the film. It merely takes the idea of Mata Hari and hangs a melodramatic romance plot on her life. This makes for a nice starring vehicle for Garbo, one of the great actresses of her generation. But as a spy film, I’d only rate it as fair.

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