At the height of the Hollywood studio system off the 1930’s and 1940’s the major studios developed fierce rivalries with one another. In order to draw audiences away from their rivals, studios would try to out-do one another by copying each other’s successes. As a result, for reach studio’s star, another studio had a star marketed for similar appeal, and for each box office hit another, almost identical film was released in hopes of luring the original film’s audience. One particularly interesting rivalry was the one that studios created between actresses Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. After Swedish starlet Garbo made the difficult transition to sound with her fan base intact, Paramount imported German screen sensation Dietrich in hopes of replicating MGM’s success. When Garbo continued to remain a fan favorite over her newly arrived competitor Paramount resorted to promoting Dietrich in films that directly mirrored Garbo’s despite the obvious differences between the two’s acting styles and screen personas. One such instance is Paramount’s 1931 release of Dishonored, a World War I spy thriller that followed in the footsteps of the MGM hit Mata Hari released earlier that same year. While both films provide interesting twists on the popular genre, which movie can claim the more adept agent, the more thrilling twists, and ultimately the sultrier spy?
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Ladies With Pasts: Although both films focus upon their heroine’s spy-jinks, both also lend more credibility to their stories by providing their leading ladies with civilian lives outside of their intelligence work. Because Mata Hari was loosely inspired by a true story, screenwriters were forced to keep their script generally aligned with history. As a result Mata retains her larger than life persona as an exotic burlesque dancer and courtesan who conducts her top secret work under the watchful eyes of the very authorities who should be tracking her. Mata’s double life as a stage sensation lends the story a unique dynamic as her star status allows her to routinely break social norms and flaunt her scandalous behavior under the guise of being a temperamental artist without raising suspicion. Her stage success also places her in a position in which she can disobey her superiors’ orders with minimal consequences because her career allows her to travel across enemy lines with little difficulty, making her an agent with valuable leverage. Despite the story’s attention to the nuances of her double life, however, the script fails to explain why she, a Dutch citizen, would risk her life for Germany in an effort to betray France, the nation in which she has achieved her lavish lifestyle. There is also no motive to lend credibility to her willingness to engage in such dangerous work as she displays little allegiance to any nation. As a result, it is difficult to identify with Mata’s later crisis of conscience as she seems to be following orders more as an act of flippant rebellion than as matter of political or personal loyalty.
In Dishonored, Dietrich’s Maria, also known as Agent X27, is a far more ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances. At the film’s start, she is working as a prostitute after being left a destitute widow in the wake of World War I. When Austrian intelligence approaches her about using her seductive skills to help her country she accepts for lack of other options rather than out of a sense of patriotic duty. Although fictional, this scenario is far more believable than the sensationalized Mata Hari in its portrayal of its heroine’s hopeless desperation driving her into the dangerous would of international espionage. Maria’s existential quest through a world of deception and betrayal also reflects the void that modern life became for World War I’s ‘Lost Generation’ upon returning home, placing the story within the historical context of the era in which it takes place and the equally disillusioned era it was released in. Through its portrayal of the spy as just another disillusioned soldier, the film draws sympathy for its heroine without resorting to cliché twists and moral turns. For its hard-hitting portrayal of an average woman’s journey through the maze of modern warfare, dishonored wins the battle for most resonant and believable backstory.
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The Company They Keep: While spy thrillers are known for their roguish heroes and vampish heroines, they are also equally known for their lackluster love-interests. Long before interchangeable Bond-girls became synonymous with the genre, spy thrillers had been filling screens with romantic leads whose roles were as flimsy as the special effects that they worked with. Unfortunately, Dishonored falls into this all too common trap by having Maria meet her match in a male spy from an enemy nation. While the idea of two agents brought together by the very work that threatens to tear them apart has the potential to create an interesting dynamic, the plot fails to bring them together so much as have them occasionally bump into each other. While the two do meet several times during their missions, their interactions are always cut short and their exchanges are limited to shop-talk and innuendo. As a result, the pair are little more than acquaintances when the plot calls for them to be tragic lovers. This forced plot twist is made even more obvious by the lack of chemistry between Victor McLaglen’s Colonel Kranau, whose attempts to woo his fellow spy consist primarily of grinning lasciviously, and Dietrich’s Maria, whose cool sex appeal better fits the detached prostitute that she begins the film as. By the time that the film reaches a truly unique climax it is difficult for audiences to remain invested in its heroine, whose downfall seems to be an illogical surrender to temporary lust rather than a self-sacrificing love.
While Mata Hari’s naïve Alexis (Ramon Navarro) appears to be a strange choice to catch the notorious Mata’s eye, it is the offbeat nature of their relationship that makes it endearing. Rather than a conventional, macho, leading man he is instead a star struck fan who worships Mata to the point of becoming a pest. While he is repeatedly referenced to be a hero in the Russian air force, he seems to be in more need of rescuing than her. She initially goes out with him to spite her superiors and only allows him to spend the night with her as an act of pity, certain that he’ll return to the front and never see her again. When she is assigned to obtain information from him, however, she is forced to spend more time with him and eventually develops a friendly fondness for him that threatens to develop into something more. While the spy who falls for their assignment was already an established cliché, Mata Hari provided a logical backstory to make the relationship credible and just enough original flair to make the plot almost feel fresh. Unlike Maria and Colonel Kranau’s convenient change of heart, Mata and Alexis’ relationship follows a natural trajectory with her feelings developing from pity and guilt to respect and genuine affection and Alexis’ idolizing of her evolving into understanding and real romance. Although Ramon Novarro is less than convincing as a Russian pilot with his heavy Spanish accent, he imbues Alexis with an innocence, kindness, and goofy charm that could soften even the most cynical secret agent. For its quirky take on what could have been a tired story, Mata Hari claims victory for the more memorable relationship and a truly lovable love-interest.
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Star Quality: In casting Greta Garbo as Mata Hari, MGM made a wise business decision. Mata Hari went on to become one of the top box-office hits of 1931 and continues to be a favorite of Garbo fans, even making cameos in more recent releases. While Mata could have easily been a stereotypical femme fatale, Garbo instead gave audiences the multifaceted performance that they had come to expect of her. Rather than the extremes of the haughty vamp and the self-sacrificing lover that the script alternates between portraying her as, Garbo’s Mata is a complex character who shifts from glamour girl, to enticing agent, to stifled celebrity, to devoted companion without hitting a single false note. As a result, she is a character whom audiences can come to know and root for because of her many strengths and despite her many faults. Paramount was equally business savvy when they cast Dietrich in Dishonored. Dietrich possesses just the right blend of smoldering sex appeal and cool detachment to portray her own enigmatic agent. Unfortunately, while Maria makes for an ideal blank slate, she is also in many ways reduced to a type. While viewers get to see the desolation of WWI Vienna that drives her first to prostitution and then to espionage we are never able to see what beyond her reduced circumstances motivates her. As a result, the audience is shown her actions but never the emotional or psychological reasoning behind those actions. Thus, audiences are forced to settle for Dietrich’s usual, albeit thoroughly entertaining persona just when the story begins to demand the presence of a full-fleshed character. Dietrich’s mystique, while befitting for a spy, fails to provide viewers with any real insight into the woman behind the code name, making it difficult to be fully invested in Maria’s adventures or their consequences.
Both Dietrich and Garbo bring their full talents to the table in two of the better performances of their lengthy careers, making for a tight competition. This final category, even more so than the previous two, comes down to a matter of personal taste. Personally, I prefer to know what makes a character tick rather than be kept constantly guessing as to why as well as what they’ll do next. For her three-dimensional performance of what easily could have been a cardboard character, I give Garbo the slight edge, leaving Mata Hari the victor to whom goes the bragging rights. Tell me what your favorite spy films are in the comments!
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If you'd like more on seductive spying check out my full-length stage drama Through Enemy Eyes http://www.jacpub.com/Full-Length/Ennis_EnemyEyes.htm