Mata Hari (1931)


Directed by George Fitzmaurice
Greta Garbo, Ramon Navarro, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, C. Henry Gordon, Karen Morley

“In 1917, war-ridden France
Dealt summarily with
Traitors and spies”

I am far from an expert when it comes to the film Mata Hari. Sure, when reviewing a film, I try to do a little bit of research, but generally when watching a mainstream film, I presume that I am watching a full-length, uncut version. After all, what kind of shocks could a film from 1931 hold for modern audiences? Not too many, but when the film was re-released in 1938/39, some scenes were cut out to satisfy the Hays Code. And unfortunately, these scenes have never been reinstated. So the current DVD version of Mata Hari is cut. But who knows, the complete version may turn up one day?

But here’s a quick overview of the current DVD version: In a field three traitors a tied to stakes. A firing squad shoots the first traitor, then the second. Before shooting the third, two officials walk up to the young gent tied to the stake. One of the officials, Dubois (C. Henry Gordon) asks the young man about a woman. The man, who is clearly scared, refuses to answer. Dubois says, “It’s Mata Hari isn’t it?” There is still no answer. The officials walk away in disgust, and the traitor is shot.

Overhead, a biplane flies over the killing field to a nearby landing field. The plane is Russian and the pilot is Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Navarro) of the Russian Imperial Airforce. He is carrying important documents which have to be passed on to the heads of the Russian Embassy in Paris. Waiting to greet Rosanoff is General Shubin (Lionel Barrymore), a high ranking Russian officer stationed in Paris. Shubin takes Rosanoff to the Embassy where he hands over the despatches. The documents he has handed over demand a reply, but the information is in code and will take twelve hours to decipher. So in the meantime. Rosanoff has a few hours to kill in Paris. Shubin invites Rosanoff to dinner, and afterwards to a performance by Mata Hari.

At the show, Mata Hari (Greta Garbo) does a provocative dance in front of a giant statue of Shiva. Apparently this is one of the sequences that was cut. It appears that Garbo’s dance was a little too steamy. At the end of the performance the crowd goes wild. Especially Rosanoff, who after witnessing one performance is completely infatuated with Mata Hari.

But Rosanoff isn’t the only one infatuated with Mata Hari. General Shubin meets her back stage. He wants a relationship (or a least a quick leg-over) with Mata Hari. But she is not interested at this time. She is more enamoured with the other younger men who throw themselves at her. But Shubin knows a few ‘dirty secrets’ about Mata Hari, and threatens to reveal them all. She calls his bluff. Shubin backs down and leaves with his desires un-satiated.

Afterwards, Mata Hari and an entourage of young men make then way to a gambling den called The Pavillion. The Pavillion is actually a front for the German spymaster Andriani (Lewis Stone), and Mata Hari is one of his agents. Mata Hari and Andriani meet in a back room. Her next mission is to find out about the papers that were flown in from Russia earlier in the day. To acquire the information she is sent to seduce Shubin once again. But there may be a another way to get the information. Rosanoff has followed Mata Hari to the casino, and offers to chauffeur her home. She accepts the offer, and the couple return to her abode.

More recent Mata Hari films have asked the question, was Mata Hari really a German Agent? Or was she a French double-agent? Or was she a courtesan who’s allegiances fluctuated with whoever was paying her the most? In this film there is no conflict. She is definitely a spy for the Germans. The conflict in this film comes from her relationship with Rosanoff. It is her love for him that is her eventual undoing.

Early in the film Andriani kills one of his agents. Her name was Carlotta (Karen Morley), and she worked in a very similar fashion to Mata Hari; seducing the information from men of influence. But she falls in love. As Andriani has her killed, he says to Mata Hari, ”A spy in love is a tool that has lost it’s usefulness.” It’s a lesson that Mata Hari should have heeded.

This film makes virtually no attempt to tell the truth about Mata Hari’s life. The only things that are true are: she called herself Mata Hari, she danced, she fell in love with a Russian pilot, and was shot as a traitor. Apart from that, all the characters and situations have been made up.

But if you look at this film as entertainment, and not as a history lesson, then I guess it isn’t to bad. The last twenty minutes or so are a bit long and overly melodramatic, but that was the style at the time. Despite this film’s flaws it is worth noting that much of the myth and notoriety surrounding Mata Hari was created by the success of this motion picture, rather than any factual retelling of the Mata Hari story.

The acting is a film of this era isn’t really worth talking about too much. It was made long before ‘method acting’ so nobody really inhabits their character. In some of the scenes it is almost like watching a bad soap opera. Ramon Navarro is particularly guilty of over-acting. Garbo, on the other hand doesn’t have to act until the end of the film. Generally her lurid costumes do the talking for her.

Time has caught up with this film a bit, but if you are a hard core fan of spy movies, you must see this film (at least once). The Mata Hari legend begins here.

To read the review for the Biography’s Mata Hari: The Seductive Spy click here.

To read the review of Sylvia Kristel’s Mata Hari click here.

To read the ‘Eye Witness To History’ article click here.

For information on Mata Hari’s propaganda postcards click here.

Mata Hari (1931)

Journey Into Fear (1943)


Directed by Norman Foster
Joseph Cotton, Dolores del Rio, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Jack Moss
Music by Roy Webb

Based on the novel by Eric Ambler

The stock players from Orson Welles, Mercury Theatre Company bring Eric Ambler’s Journey Into Fear to the screen. Often direction for this film is attributed to Welles, but in later life he denied this. Regardless of who directed this movie, it is still a tidy little thriller with pretty good performances.

Here’s the plot. In a hotel room a phonograph hisses and whirs, playing an old copy of Chagrin d’Amour, when the needle sticks, and the same line of the record is repeated again and again. It’s all rather hypnotic and annoying. But the hotel patron isn’t paying attention. His mind is on other things because he is a professional killer preparing for a hit. His name is Benat (Jack Moss).

Meanwhile an American couple, Howard and Stephanie Graham (Joseph Cotten and Ruth Warrick) arrive in Istanbul. Howard Graham works for Bainbridge and Sons, an armaments company. At the hotel, the companies Istanbul representative, Kopeikin (Everett Sloane), meets Graham and shepherds him off to a nightclub, without his wife (to discuss business, naturally). At the nightclub, Graham is lured onto the stage by a magician performing a disappearance act. The ‘trick’ works, but the magician ends up dead with a knife in his back.

All the patrons of the nightclub are sent before the much feared Head Of Secret Police, Colonel Haki (Orson Welles). Haki pays particular attention to Graham, who he believes was the intended target of the murder. Before Graham can get into any more trouble, Haki has put him on a steamer to Batum. It appears a notorious Nazi operating in the area, named Müeller has hired Benat to kill Graham, so it is imperative that Graham get out quickly, and not by the regular routes. Haki promises to take care of Graham’s wife and have her meet him safely in Batum. Kopeikin escorts Graham to the steamer, and at the gangplank wishes him good luck and gives him a pistol.

I must admit, that I love this kind of film. This is one of those ones where various characters from differing backgrounds make a journey together. Some are good. Some are bad, and some are simply along for the ride. Recently I looked at Sleeping Car To Trieste which is in a similar vein, another popular example would be the Humphrey Bogart’s film Across The Pacific.

Any film with Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles is going to compared to The Third Man. Journey Into Fear is obviously not in that class. The Third Man is a classic, but Journey Into Fear is a worthy companion piece. It is a little more simplistic, but that’s not a bad thing. If you like old fashioned suspense thrillers, this film is definitely worth a look.

Incidently, Journey Into Fear was remade in 1975 with Sam Waterston in the role as Graham.

Journey Into Fear (1943)

Dr No (1962)


Directed by Terence Young
Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Jack Lord, Anthony Dawson, John Kitzmiller, Eunice Gayson, Zena Marshall, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell
Music by Monty Norman
James Bond theme played by John Barry
Based on the novel by Ian Fleming

I don’t think I am giving too much away when I say that I am a child of the seventies and eighties. The first Bond film I saw was The Spy Who Loved Me, and I absolutely loved it. Soon after, I started on a quest to try and watch all of the James Bond films. It wasn’t so easy back then. There were no video tapes, let alone DVDs. Basically all I could do was wait until a Bond film showed up on network TV, Over the years I ticked off each of the films as they were shown, but Dr. No remained steadfastly hidden from view. It wasn’t until the video age swept the world in the mid eighties that I finally got to see the first Bond film. And as a teenager, I must admit I wasn’t too impressed. It wasn’t like the other films. The start was different; where was the pre-title sequence? And where were the one-liners and double entendres?

But still, it was a Bond film and almost religiously I would watch it once a year. And now here it is twenty (plus) years later and you know what? I have truly grown to love this film. I think it is one of the best of the series. Anyway, that’s enough reminiscing; let’s look at the film!

There are conflicting opening dates for the first Bond film. The James Bond Interactive Dossier lists it as October 5,1962, but Raymond Benson in The James Bond Beside Companion writes that the film opened on the 7th. Either way Ian Fleming’s superspy James Bond 007 made his first big screen appearance. By this I mean cinematic appearance. James Bond had appeared before in an American TV movie of Casino Royale in 1954, but to most people, that doesn’t count. Dr No was the first official James Bond movie made by EON productions, the company most people associate with the Bond franchise.

For the part of James Bond, Ian Fleming wanted David Niven or even Roger Moore, but he was contracted to the television series The Saint. The Studio’s wanted Cary Grant but he would only agree to do two films. Finally they settled on little known actor Sean Connery and the rest, as they say, is history.

Despite it’s age, Dr No is one of the most violent Bond movies. From full-blooded fist fights, cold- blooded killings, flash-cubes being thrust into the head, this films depiction of violence is more realistic, and less stylised than later films in the series. Towards the end, after Bond has been given the ‘treatment’ by Dr No’s henchmen and struggled through an obstacle course, he is pretty badly beaten up and not the suave, unruffled hero we are used to.

In it’s day Dr. No was quite blatant in its depiction of sex. These days it would be considered quite mild and even teen films like Agent Cody Banks and If Looks Could Kill are almost on par with the shenanigans that go on. But still, there are quite a few conquests for Bond along the way. Firstly, Eunice Gayson’s character, Sylvia Trench (the girl Bond picks up at the Casino at the beginning). Originally the character was intended to appear in every film but the idea was dropped after From Russia With Love. It is alluded to that Bond beds her before heading off on his mission.

Next is Zena Marshall, who as Miss Taro is the most ruthless and conniving of the ladies Bond beds. She deliberately lures Bond to her cabin in the mountains for a romantic interlude. All the while it is a trap, where a team of assassins in a hearse try to run Bond’s vehicle of the road. After the assassins fail, she arranges for Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) to finish the job. He is not too successful either.

Last but not least, is Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder, who was cast after the producers saw a picture of her in a wet T-shirt. She is the first real Bond girl. Her emergence from the water, wearing a white bikini with a belt and knife at her hip, is one of the most famous and lampooned sequences in modern cinema history. Incidentally, Ursula Andress’ voice was completely re-dubbed for the films release.

The movie primarily set in Jamaica, starts with the assassination of Strangways, the top M.I.7* operative in the Caribbean, and his secretary, by three hoods working for Dr No. Strangways was investigating some destructive radio signals emanating from the Caribbean. These signals were toppling (sending off course) American missiles.

Bond is sent to Jamaica to follow up, and from the instant he arrives, he is up to his armpits with henchmen and women trying to divert him from his mission. And naturally enough, this all leads to Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). Dr. No, like many criminal masterminds, has a physical impediment. He has metal hands. He also works for an evil criminal organisation called S.P.E.C.T.R.E., which stands for Special Executive for Counter Terrorism Revenge and Extrortion.

I think that the true Bond fans love Dr. No. Maybe callow youth (hey, I was one once) and tourists to the series may not rate it too highly, but this is a bloody great film, and without it, we wouldn’t have the Bond series as we know it today.

*In Dr. No, ‘M’ (Bernard Lee) refers to his department as M.I.7. Only in later films in the series does it revert to M.I.6. But funnily enough, in vintage advertising material, ‘M’ says M.I.6. If you look carefully at the film, you can see the Lee has looped his dialogue. His lips read ‘six’, but his voice says ‘seven’.

Dr No (1962)

Spies (1928)


AKA: Spione
Directed by Fritz Lang
Rudolph Klein-Rogge, Willy Fritsch, Gerda Maurus, Lupu Pick, Fritz Rasp
New score composed by Donald Sasin

Spies is director Fritz Lang’s follow-up to the epic science fiction masterpiece Metropolis. Like Metropolis, Spies is also a silent film and if you watch the restored F.W. Murnau Foundation version, which comes in at 143 minutes, unless a student of cinema, you may find it a bit of a slog. That’s not to say that it is bad or boring, but it does take it’s time moving through the story, after branching off on various sub-plots. Despite this there are some amazing scenes – maybe not in Metropolis’ league, but impressive none-the-less. Even many of the less elaborate set designs are ground breaking, providing the blueprint for the spy films that would trail behind in the following decades.

At the centre of this film is the character Hagji, the villainous head of a criminal spy ring. Haghi is played by Rudolph Klein-Rogge who had played this type of role before for Lang, first in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, and then as the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis. Haghi, although a super villain in the traditional sense, is wheelchair bound and has an evil henchwoman / nurse who pushes him around and physically oversees the operation.

The other two main characters are Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), a good guy assigned to break Haghi’s spy ring, and Sonja (Gerda Maurus), who is Haghi’s most alluring, and ultimately dangerous operative. She is an old-school femme fatale.

Because she is evil, Sonja is sent to kill Agent 326. But what should happen? The two opposing agents fall in love. From that point on, Sonja refuses to carry out any more assignments for Haghi. Haghi is not happy and imprisons her at his secret headquarters (which happens to be a bank – with current interest rates, I find the idea that a bank should house the world’s ultimate villain quite amusing!)

This leaves Agent 326 to find and capture Haghi, and to rescue his imprisoned sweetheart. I make the story sound more straight forward than it is. There are quite a few subplots involving the Russians and the Japanese. Most of these merely show how evil and malevolent Haghi truly is. The demise of Japanese agent, Masimoto (Lupu Pick) is quite moving.

At the heart of this story is the love story, and in many ways it mirrors the lovers from the different levels in Metropolis. Only in this film, the lovers are not separated by different levels of society, but are separated by different ideologies. Also, this time it is the woman who sees the error of her ways, rather than the man.

As I mentioned at the top, Spies is a good film, but it won’t be for everyone. I think the key word for this film is ‘patience’. If you have the patience and are truly interested in the evolution of the spy film then here it is – the blueprint.

Spies (1928)

The 39 Steps (1935)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Wylie Watson
Musical director: Louis Levy
Loosely based on the novel by John Buchan

Obviously this is one of the classic films of all time, regardless of it being a spy film, and much has been written about it and it’s director Alfred Hitchcock. And naturally, I’ll add my two-cents worth. The 39 Steps is an absolutely magnificent film and the prototype of all the Innocent Bystander spy films. Many spy films use the classic wrong place at the wrong time scenario. Everyman or woman can be the innocent person who stumbles in on an incident or who gets caught up in the web of intrigue. In this case it is Richard Hannay, a character created early last century by author John Buchan.

And the character of Hannay has endured. Buchan wrote, at least another four novels concerning the adventures of Hannay. And the film has been remade three times so far (at the time of writing there is rumoured to be a new version directed by Robert Towne – screenwriter for Chinatown and Mission Impossible 2 – whether this comes to fruition or not is another matter – time will tell). To top it off, a television series was made called Hannay, starring Robert Powell. It went for thirteen episodes and all new adventures and schemes were invented for our dashing hero. So that’s Richard Hannay; the innocent man caught up in this web of intrigue. His name may not be as well known as James Bond, be he is one of the cornerstones of modern spy films and literature.

Hitchcock’s story veers from the book but the film is such great fun, nobody seems to care. Here’s the synopsis. The film opens in a music hall. The act on stage is Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson). Each day, Mr. Memory commits fifty new facts to his miraculous brain. At the music hall his act consists of asking audience members to test his knowledge by shouting out questions. Memory then recites the correct answer. In a fever of excitement, the crowd shout out a plethora of questions. So many that Memory cannot answer them all at once. The crowd gets restless and a melee erupts at the back. As the fight escalates, two gunshots are heard and the crowd stampede for the exit. In the crush two people are thrust together. They are Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) and Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). She seems flustered and asks to go back to his apartment. Hannay obliges. At his apartment she does not allow him to turn on the lights and she turns the mirror to face the wall. All in all, she seems shaken and paranoid. Hiding in the kitchen with the blinds drawn she explains what is going on. Firstly, she fired the gun at the music hall to create a diversion. Two men are trying to kill her. He says, “It sounds like a spy story.” She says, “it is” but she prefers to be called an ‘agent’ rather than a ‘spy’. Then she explains she is trying to stop a secret being smuggled out of Great Britain – a secret that is vital to Air Defence. Hannay doesn’t believe her (his mistrust will come back to haunt him). She suggests that he looks out of the sitting room window. He does and sees two suspicious characters in overcoats standing under a street lamp. He finally believes her. Trouble ahead.

She says, “I am going to tell you something that is not very healthy to know!” Despite her claim, she doesn’t give much information away. She asks if he has heard of ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’? He says, “No. Is it a pub?” Then she talks of the leader of this secret plot. He is missing the top of his small finger on his right hand.

Annabella Smith asks to stay the night till it is safe. She also asks for a map of Scotland. Once again Hannay obliges. He ends up sleeping on the couch – after all, he is a gentleman.

During the night, Miss Smith crashes into the sitting room where Hannay is sleeping. “Clear out Hannay. You’re next!” she says as she collapses on his lap with a knife sticking out of her back. She dies. In her hand is a piece of paper.

Hannay is shocked and staggers to the window. At that moment the phone rings. His first reaction is to pick it up, but then he thinks better of it. From the window he can see the two hoods who’d been watching his apartment, but now one of them is in a call box. Are they on the other end of the phone? Do they know he is there?

Hannay walks over to Smith’s dead body and pries the piece of paper from her hand. It is the map of Scotland that he had given her earlier in the evening. She has circled one section. “Alt-na-Shellach.”

The next thing Hannay has to do is get out of the apartment without being seen, but he only gets as far as the foyer. Men are watching the door. Luckily for Hannay, the milkman enters the building, making his usual early morning run. Hannay tells the milkman a cock-and-bull story and borrows the milkman’s hat and coat. Disguised he makes his escape.

Next he boards a steam train, The Flying Scotsman. The Scotsman is on its way to Scotland, but before it shunts off, two enemy agents recognise Hannay and raise the alarm. But the train moves off before they can board.

Back in London, Hannay’s maid finds Annabella Smith’s body in his apartment. In a standout piece of film-making, the maid’s silent scream becomes the whistle of the steam train as it powers out of a tunnel.

By the time Hannay hits Edinburgh, the newspapers have the story of Smith’s murder and police are swarming the station and board the train as it continues it’s journey.

Hannay gets flighty, once he realises he is a wanted man, and exits his compartment on the train. Good thing too, as the police are searching every carriage. As he tries to avoid capture he spies (no pun intended) a young lady, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), in a compartment all alone. As the police get closer, he bursts into her compartment, pretends to know her, then gives her a passionate kiss. As the police pass the compartment, they see the couple locked in embrace. As they are after a man travelling alone, they move along. Hannay thinks it is a lucky escape, but not quite so simple. Pamela wasn’t a willing participant in Hannay’s ploy to avoid attention and at the earliest opportunity she tells the police who he is. Hannay runs. The emergency break on the train is pulled and it stops on a railway bridge. Hannay jumps off the train and hides behind the massive iron girders beneath the bridge. He avoids detection and the train pulls away.

But Hannay is now the subject of a substantial manhunt, and police officers flood into the area. Some are on foot, others are in cars and there is even a plane in the air. Soldiering on, Hannay makes his way towards Alt-na-Shellach. As nightfall approaches he buys himself a bed for the night at a farmhouse. His evening is interrupted when the police arrive during the middle of the night. He flees with the farmers dark overcoat.

Eventually, the next day Hannay reaches Alt-na-Shellach and approaches the mansion. At the front door he announces himself as Hammond (rather than Hannay) and says he was a friend of Annabella Smith. This works and he is ushered inside. It appears he has found sanctuary. Of course the police are in hot pursuit and arrive on the doorstep, but they are sent away by the head of the house, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle).

Alone, the Professor asks Hannay what is going on. Hannay tells his story and is relieved that someone believes he is innocent. Then his host reveals that he is missing the top of his finger on his left hand, and that he isn’t Annabella Smith’s contact, but rather the head of the spy ring she was investigating. The Professor pulls out a gun and shoots Hannay. Luckily for Hannay, the overcoat that he stole from the farmhouse contained a hymn book in the breast pocket. The bullet lodges in the book and saves his life.

Next, Hannay escapes from the mansion and heads to the police station in the local village. He tells his story. It appears the police officer believes him, but in fact is stalling for more time. More police arrive. Once again Hannay has to go on the run. He leaps out of the window of the police station, and searches for a place to hide in the village. At the town hall a civic meeting is taking place. He enters the hall and is mistaken for one of the speakers. It appears that a rally for a local member of parliament is taking place, and they believe Hannay is the guest speaker from London. Hannay has no choice but to step up to the podium and make a speech. He wings it. But Pamela (the girl from the train) recognises Hannay, and notifies the authorities. After the speech they arrest Hannay. Much to Pamela’s chagrin, they take her into custody as well – to identify the suspect (hasn’t she already done that?)

Of course, the police officers aren’t police officers. They are the Professor’s men and are taking Hannay and the girl back to him. Handcuffed together, Hannay and Pamela escape from the car when a herd of sheep block the road. Pamela isn’t an easy partner though. She doesn’t believe Hannay is innocent, and he has to practically drag her kicking and screaming into the night.

They both evade capture and end up on the doorstep of a quiet country inn. Posing as man and wife, to hide the handcuffs, and so Hannay can keep a tight reign on Pamela, they are given a room for the night. During the night, as Hannay sleeps, Pamela squeezes her tiny hand out of her handcuff. She intends to escape and tell the police once more, but as she sneaks out of the room, on the landing, she can hear two men making a phone call downstairs. It is the two fake police officers phoning the Professor. They inadvertently reveal that Hannay is telling the truth. She also hears that their boss has fled the mansion and is heading to the London Palladium to pick up a friend. Pamela returns to her room. She is finally a believer. She tells Hannay what she overheard.

And that’s where I’ll leave the plot synopsis dear reader. You’ll have to watch this movie to find out what happens and who are The 39 Steps. As I mentioned at the outset, the film (and story) is so popular that it has been remade three times, first in 1959 starring Kenneth More as Hannay. The next version was made in 1976 and starred Robert Powell – who would go on to play Hannay in the television series of the same name. Next, is the recent BBC adaptation (2008) with Rupert Penry-Jones as Hannay. IMDB lists a version scheduled for 2011, directed by Robert Towne (which I mentioned earlier).

Most recently, Hitchcock’s film has been adapted into a stage play which has played all around the world, and may I add is a thoroughly entertaining evening of theatre. If you have an opportunity to catch the show, grab it with both hands.

The 39 Steps (1935)