Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Greta Garbo silent The Mysterious Lady is the definition of a romantic Star Vehicle. Its minimal espionage story imagines a lady spy falling in love with her intended target. Several men orbit around the temptress but there are no other significant female roles. Every physical and cinematic effort is directed to showcasing the allure of the star - even when she's not holding the camera in a close-up embrace, we're thinking about nothing else but her. Garbo taught the movies that movie glamour knows no limits. 1928 audiences could be forgiven for indulging the illusion that the love goddess on the screen was fixing her seductive eyes directly on them, personally.
Maneuvered into a vacant seat in an opera box by his friend Max Heinrich (Albet Pollet), Captain Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) is captivated to behold the ravishingly beautiful Tania Fedorova (Greta Garbo). Instantly in love, he accompanies the cultured lady to her home. Karl's uncle Eric (Edward Connelly) warns him that Tania is a Russian spy, but before he knows what has happened, secret documents are stolen and Karl is courts-martialed and imprisoned for treason. With the help of his uncle, Karl breaks jail and heads for Moscow, to find Tania and retrieve the military secrets. Is she a cold-hearted Mata Hari, or will she admit that she's truly fallen in love?
Silent movies had the ability to zero in on one aspect of a story, or even a single emotion in a story, unencumbered by the literal 'realism' that sound brought to the screen. Despite the fact that all that transpires between the lovers of The Mysterious Lady are smoldering looks and a kiss or two, the film is a heady erotic experience. The stream of expressions that flow across Greta Garbo's eyes as her mood changes from knowing calculation to unrestrained desire is an education in itself.
The slender Garbo could be extremely photogenic in wide shots but her forte was the close-up. Aided by William Daniels' specially diffused lens, the tight shots of Garbo making eye contact with her lover have an intimacy that seems to leap off the screen - no wonder the censor wags of the 1920s were ready to strike down the entire medium of the movies as immoral. She completely overpowers the dreamy-eyed Conrad Nagel, who plays most of their first love encounter staring at Garbo in rapture. He can't believe this is happening to him (the thrill of love is like that) and seems to turn to Jello before our very eyes. Tania and Karl fall into an immediate, passionate love affair.
The Mysterious Lady is putatively about espionage and betrayal but quickly boils down to simple trust between two lovers. Karl rejects Tania when he suspects she's after his secret documents, and only later do we find out what frame of mind she was in when she took them. Stripped of his medals and insignia by the German army -- ever try a 'true love' defense at a courts-martial? -- Karl embarks on a mad mission to Moscow disguised as a pianist. There he finds Tania being pressured by her spymaster General Boris (mustachioed, sinister Gustav von Seyffertitz), who seems to like the idea of bedding an agent who serves her country by bedding foreigners. Dangerous intrigues, personal jealousy and the entire Russian army take a back seat to the invisible bonds of passion between the two lovers, and not even firing squads can keep them apart.
The Mysterious Lady is a slick entertainment that doubtlessly left 1928 audiences gasping for breath. Director Fred Niblo focuses almost entirely on the reactions, body language and expressions of the characters. Garbo's naturalistic continental acting style makes the stage-derived methods of most of the big Hollywood stars appear old-fashioned; although the story may be naïve, The Mysterious Lady is modern in its look and feel. Seventy-seven years later, it still plays as an emotionally valid experience.
Warners' DVD of The Mysterious Lady is one of three features in The Garbo Silents
Collection and shares space on one disc with Flesh and the Devil and The Temptress.
The feature is intact but was obviously saved just before it succumbed to old age - it's covered with fine scratches and several early scenes show signs of emulsion deterioration. None of these flaws dull the impact of the images, which are steady and sharp. We can appreciate the enormously flattering effects of William Daniels' photography, and continuity seems unbroken.
Greatly enhancing the silent-film experience is a new (2002) score by Vivek Maddala, a lush symphonic accompaniment graced by a love theme to match the passion on screen. Conrad Nagel plays the same piano tune several times in the movie, and Maddala provides a song that fits perfectly. The TCM Young Composers program is revamping many silent films with classy new scores and producing excellent results.
Film historians Tony Maietta and Jeffrey Vance's spirited commentary is divided evenly between informative facts (The Mysterious Lady was produced in the queasy period when silents were being phased out) and fannish passion for the screen goddess Garbo. Also associated with this feature is a presentation of one reel of her lost 1928 film The Divine Woman; all that survives are nine interesting minutes of a battered Russian print.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mysterious Lady rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Tony Maietta and Jeffrey Vance; surviving reel of
The Divine Woman (1928)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 6, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson