Directed by Fred Niblo
Written by Bess Meredyth, Frances Marion, Marian Ainslee, and Ruth Cummings (based on the novel War in the Dark by Ludwig Wolff)
Having renegotiated her contract in her favor after Flesh and the Devil, MGM intended to get their money's worth out of Greta Garbo, and after Love (a very big hit for MGM) she was immediately shuffled off to do The Divine Woman for 1928, under director and fellow Swede-in-Hollywood Victor Sjöström. Hopefully, you'll forgive me for saying that the single surviving reel of The Divine Woman—the film is otherwise lost—makes it look like a pretty damned boring movie. It's impossible to say from just eight minutes, but it's impossible to say with Sjöström, too: his surviving film from 1928, The Wind, starring another silent idol, Lillian Gish, is magnificent; on the other hand, I despise his most famous work, The Phantom Carriage, and the aesthetics of the surviving reel of The Divine Woman look frighteningly more akin to that than they do The Wind. It's very possible that contemporary audiences thought it sucked: for one thing, there's the basic fact that it's a Greta Garbo film that's lost, her only star vehicle not to have been preserved; likewise, while still successful, it made a lot less money than Love, though who knows, maybe the appeal of John Gilbert, or Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, explains that all by itself. But now we have Garbo's subsequent film of 1928, The Mysterious Lady, coming between The Divine Woman and before Garbo's reunion with Gilbert and her Flesh and the Devil director Clarence Brown on A Woman of Affairs—so, yes, 1928 was the year of terrible generic titles for Garbo films, and I wish they at least would all have had "woman" in the name so I'd stop mistyping this one—and The Mysterious Lady represented, if nothing else, a financial rebound in the right direction.
I'm sure it helped that The Mysterious Lady is a pretty damned great movie, a plausible contender for Garbo's second-best movie after Flesh and the Devil (having screened only about half of her filmography to date, I should not commit so readily, but it engenders that kind of enthusiasm); either way, it's by far the single best Fred Niblo film I've ever seen, and while Niblo has snuck his way into being this site's single most frequently-reviewed silent film director (though Brown is going to blow his doors off shortly), that was never on purpose. Admittedly, I've only seen six Niblo films in total (out of about forty), but I've seen the big ones, and so The Mysterious Lady offers something I did not expect Niblo capable of making: either a masterpiece or something so close to a masterpiece I don't mind calling it one.
And I would aver that Niblo's direction on the film is a masterpiece, which is to say, a work that in every respect demonstrates its artist's mastery of his art. There are strong shots, strong sequences (even some amazing sequences), strong performances and strong conceptual throughlines, etc., in various other Niblo films (even bad ones, like his other film with Garbo, The Temptress). But I have never seen his direction be so on-target that it's basically an uninterrupted march of excellent shots, excellent sequences, excellent performances, excellent conceptual throughlines, and so forth, so that even on the very rare occasion the movie threatens to get a little clunky, it's mostly because the script put major constraints on the set-up, and it's still more charming in its silent cinema storytelling than it is "bad." (I am thinking particularly of Garbo's hand reaching through a doorframe in adjoining cabins of a train in a flatly-staged shot, presaging her entry with a little theatrical flourish. I honestly may be more irritated they didn't gimbol the set to make it a more plausible interior of a moving train.) Well, whatever it was about The Mysterious Lady—in many respects a pretty formulaic Garbo movie about (get a load of this!) a duplicitous seductress, as bolted onto, and then channeled through, a pretty formulaic spy thriller—it clearly brought out the best in him.
But then, what's "spy thriller formula" in 1928? Not much to speak of, and rather less that we have access to today (they were making "spy thrillers" before World War I and of course they kept making them during it, but I can't speak to their quality or even their prevalence; I can at least tell you they made two movies about Mata Hari before Garbo made hers). Obviously, however, there had long since been a robust tradition of espionage literature, growing naturally out of the tensions between the Great Powers before World War I, and this pre-war subgenre continued long after World War I, in period pieces interested in using its aristocracy-flavored paranoia as the backdrop for their skullduggery. The source material of The Mysterious Lady is effectively both of these things, set before the war but written in 1915 by Austrian author Ludwig Wolff, perhaps explaining why this Hollywood movie defaults to a heroic role for Austria-"oops, we ended civilization!"-Hungary, while, perhaps unusually for its era, seems to kind of hate Tsarist Russia (and so even though it does it under the name of another regime, it winds up making this an impressively early example of Hollywood Russophobia); I'm even slightly surprised Wolff could have published his book in wartime, for this adaptation, at least, makes Austrian officers look pretty stupid, suggests that the Viennese electrical grid is Mitteleuropan trash, and insinuates that the highest echelons of the Austrian general staff were rife with treason. Whatever the case, 1928 turned out to be perhaps the foundational year for cinematic spy thrillers: on the other side of the Atlantic, Fritz Lang was prototyping the "falling into a confusing maelstrom of espionage in a proto-Bondian action movie vein" in Spies, a rather good movie somewhat undercut by Lang's inability to make movies shorter than two and a half hours; while from Hollywood, we have this, the prototype for the spy thriller concerned with eroticism and romanticism as much as it is with twists, and more concerned with both than action. And it is, for the record, 89 minutes. Despite that, it still somehow has more story than Lang's film, even if does have less plot. But not even that much less plot.
That plot begins in Vienna, circa 1913, though it could be practically any time between 1900 and 1914—the film, disinterested in realism and more interested in slinky, sultry elegance, is happy to costume its men in mostly the dashing period military attire of their respective nations, but is insistent upon 20s high fashion for its women, which isn't so unique but it does give the entire affair a fascinating sense of out-of-time dreaminess for a viewer in 2022. Here we find Captain Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) of the Landstreitskräfte and his friend from the Austrian high command, Max Heinrich (Albert Pollet), whom you may discern might not be a particularly trustworthy friend in that people with monacles rarely are. They're out to see the opera—Tosca, specifically—but it's sold out. Fortunately (it seems), one ticket is returned just in time. Heinrich begs off, but Karl, a music lover and musician himself, goes ahead and takes his seat alone—but he does not sit alone, for in his box is a beautiful woman, whom we shall eventually learn is named Tania Fedorova (Garbo), "waiting for her cousin." She insists he stay and get his money's worth, and undoubtedly he does, though Karl can hardly focus on the opera. A storm having broken, Karl gives her a ride home, and, upon returning to bring back the gloves Tania's "accidentally" forgotten, he is invited in. She resists, but not too hard, the customary Viennese power outage, and Tania's extraordinarily suggestive candle-lighting, intensifying the erotic charge of the situation. They spend the next day together romping in the woods. But he is called off to Berlin on military business; and Tania is not necessarily pleased, but not surprised, to find Heinrich in her house when she gets back home. Meanwhile, Karl's uncle, intelligence man Eric von Raden (Edward Connelly), confirms what we've always suspected.
Yet I think it's possible, depending on how blindly you went into The Mysterious Lady, to not necessarily have suspected this until pretty much this very moment, for everything preceding is identical to A Greta Garbo Movie as would have been understood in 1928 and is still understood today. We even see her spymaster, General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz), his face looming out of a telegram (and it's interesting, to me, that in convergent evolution, both this and Lang's Spies use extremely similar rupturing visual language to introduce their respective villains), but we don't know who this Russian is yet. That telegram is not overt, and there is every indication that, once again, Garbo is the unfaithful spouse, having caught another lover in an adulterous quandary. But this is on the back of a remarkable and rather unique first act altogether: coming long before "spy romance" was a genre with its own rules, this film spends twelve seconds shy of twenty-eight minutes—nearly a full third of its runtime—on Tania and Karl's rapturous first date. And then at 27 minutes 48 seconds that rapture is destabilized, with the return of Heinrich, vanishing in the subsequent thirty seconds as Garbo bids him an imperious, wordless greeting with a wry, ambiguous half-smile, clarified for us and for Karl secondhand in the minutes to come.
Structurally, that's a stupendous trick—Garbo is still, as usual, the whore, but with a very different valence to it here. One of my few complaints about the film is that Niblo and Garbo are just a tiny bit too withholding as far as layering in the hints that Karl was not first a lover, but an objective: we do not, for example, see her leave her gloves in the cab; the one thing that bugs me on an acting level is that Garbo does not make any notice of Karl when he arrives in her box, when there should be some of that Garbo subtlety at work (and, even given the Garbo of it all, maybe it's a little ranklingly arrogant how much Tania assumes without doing too much to stoke Karl's desire at first, besides being Garbo). Yet it is not without its revealing pleasures on a rewatch, even so: when Garbo enters her apartment, overshadowed by a bust of, I think, Julius Caesar (which should be Mark Antony, but close enough), we get our first piece of splendid photography courtesy William Daniels, as she turns off the light and sighs in the darkness with a certain resignation, which we interpret the first time as nothing more than frustrated horniness, and not likely to be more than briefly frustrated, at that; not much later, Garbo has a close-up with her eyes framed by Nagel's shoulder as he kisses her, and there's a reticence that first looks like erotic surrender, but is a lot more apt to look the second time like regret and guilt. The woodland frolic maybe takes on even more significance the second time: it really is what it looks like, the cold-hearted spy forgetting her mission for a miracle-filled afternoon, and Nagel, unlike some Garbo co-stars, is up to the challenge of appearing as if he enjoys being with the infamously prickly actress. Now, he tackles that challenge by Gilberting in every possible respect—leering with awe, he spends the first act stealing Gilbert's whole facial repertoire before finding his own intense groove afterwards—but surely that's not a bad thing. (I am, incidentally, also fond of the little nod to Clarence Brown, when Garbo and Nagel watch with whimsy the passage of an old goose woman, which is, happily, some unobtrusively cute pastoral imagery before it's ever a reference; and I'm fond of this despite really quite strongly disliking Brown's The Goose Woman.)
You might imagine that now that Karl knows, however, it'd be a lot harder for Tania to acquire the all-important secret documents he's carrying; this is incorrect, and when she slithers her way onto the train and into the cabin next door, adorned now in sinister black outfits that will become increasingly vampiric in their stylings, he can only assume her professions of love are a clumsy last-ditch effort and not her true feelings, and he calls her a whore (well, he says something to the effect that while they might both be soldiers in their way, she serves with her "honor"), and in a bit of 89-minute-movie efficiency that could admittedly be improved, she steals those plans right out from under his nose when he decides to nap with the enemy spy next door. This leaves Karl on the hook, court-martialed and thrown in prison. But Karl is offered redemption by his uncle—one half-suspects that to acquire an asset, the old man set his nephew up—and now Karl is invited to become a spy himself. As the only one who can identify Tania, that dictates his mission: track her down under the guise of a Serbian pianist, and when he does find her, throttle the identity of the real traitor out of her. Consumed with vengeance, he readily agrees; he'd like to throttle her whether he can get the traitor's identity or not. But can he say for sure what he'll feel when he sees her again? I mean, one could guess.
But it is all very tightly-woven from here on in, even too tightly at times—it's that efficiency again, and I'm not exactly sure what we're supposed to make of Karl blowing his cover and revealing himself to Tania so readily, though I am ecstatically in love with the Expressionistic double-exposure when she deigns to sing while he plays, and in a subjective space occupying the same frame as objective reality, he strangles her instead. Moreover, Niblo discovers a superb solution to the era-long problem that dogged silent films with significant musical components, by using dissolves back to the performance of Tosca that had made Tania weep, an emotional gesture as well as just a tremendously useful piece of silent cinematic vocabulary, and one that has its visual motif paid off in the end, too.
Surprisingly, the best aspects of the filmmaking here don't even involve Garbo: the film's most visceral sequence is Karl's cashiering and ritualistic humiliation, a superlative short film all in itself, an overwhelming series of Dreyfusian visuals and the despoliation of the symbols of Karl's status—incidentally, without a single intertitle stressing it (it may not have even been part of the scenario), Niblo and Nagel manage to weave in a whole subordinate theme about how enraged Karl is to have been stripped of his rank and forced to assume a social inferiority to the aristocrats he now "serves"—and it culminates in the ruination of his uniform, buttons puddling at his feet, all of it paced to the rhythmic series of cuts to a line of virtually-faceless military drummers, the footage manipulated with grainy blow-ups and with a woozy discontinuous slow motion to give Karl's downfall a sense of endless plummeting. (It benefits immensely from the finest strains of a fine modern score by Vivek Maddala, incorporating choral wailing that indicates that he's being drummed out of Sauron's army rather than Austria's.) The next-best bit's Nagel's too, an expressionist vision of his time in prison, a cage suspended in what might as well be a black void, double-exposures of those drums still haunting him in his hell.
Garbo has her moments too, whatever might have been too incipient in her performance in the first act coming out fully in the second, thriller phase of the film, and she's privileged with some of its best editing courtesy Margaret Booth (the precision of Booth's cutting of her stormy retreat from Karl's train cabin allowing us just the impression of her black-clad body exiting is itself a quarter-second masterpiece of film editing, and a lot of the movie is exactly that good, though of course typically far longer shots are favored for Garbo to allow her expressions to evolve upon the screen). And it is worth mentioning, again, Daniels's erotically-shadowed treatment of her in Karl's candlelight seduction, a tightrope walk between not enough clarity and too much artificiality that he handles pretty much flawlessly (you can see why Niblo gave Brown a nod), though obviously the most memorable thing about it is just Garbo blowing smoke in our faces.
And Niblo prosecutes the hell out of that thriller, which winds up a little twistier than expected, and concludes with one shockingly ghoulish climax, though even beforehand it's inordinately well-handled as Niblo navigates our principals through their paces; Cedric Gibbons and his art department make their own vital contributions, not least just the most perfectly-designed stairwell, with vaguely unsettling curves to it and its final stretch a little too long in the descent, and I'm taken with the patient, terribly suspenseful, almost musically-inflected way that Niblo uses the rhythmic repetition of each principal coming down that stairwell towards Alexandroff's evil room full of secrets, and whatever their particular reward there turns out to be.
If there's anything missing, it's literally that, an omission; it's slightly awkward that Niblo, most famously a director of silent action films, didn't see the need to create an opportunity (in this spy thriller) for even one action scene. (Well, Garbo gets something akin to "action," I suppose, and it's cool; but calling it a whole "scene" is pushing it.) And as I've suggested here and there, the scenario is a little spongy at times. But it's mostly great from any angle you'd like to approach it—romance, thriller, pure cinema, narrative experiment, whatever—and it makes me sad most of Niblo's other late silents are incomplete or lost. But if nothing else it's pleasant to see a Garbo film with an actual plot beyond just "the punishment of the slut." Indeed, on that count The Mysterious Lady is especially surprising, because a Garbo character in the mold of The Garbo Character really might not have it this good ever again.