Carl Davis has said that film scores are “operas without the singing” and he demonstrates that emphatically in The Mysterious Lady. The spirit of Puccini runs through the music in the same way that Beethoven dominates his score for Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Greta Garbo is in full diva mode. She is first encountered in lingering profile at a box at the Vienna State Opera watching a performance of Tosca. She is an opera singer who is also a Russian spy but is morally troubled by the consequences of her espionage for those around her, especially her lover Karl, a captain in the Austrian army.
It is a sumptuous film with considerable glamour, lavish sets and smouldering passion. Garbo’s command over the camera is absolute and she is seen as both seductive and unattainable. Conrad Nagel is the handsome captain whose piercing gaze feasts on Garbo: a sequence as their eyes meet over a flickering candle has real charge. Gustav von Seyffertitz, with splendid moustaches and a dastardly comb-over, is the elegant spymaster, Alexandroff, while Fred Niblo – probably best known for the silent version of Ben-Hur (1925) – creates a world of intrigue. Parties and balls are mounted with bustle and fervour and the scenes where Karl is cashiered for treason and his subsequent mental turmoil are brilliantly staged The costume designs by Gilbert Clark, especially Garbo’s dresses, add significantly to the overall effect. It is an involving mixture of spy-thriller and love-story which is only let down by a too speedy resolution.
The main musical theme is a version of ‘Vissi d’arte’, and Garbo’s character is asked to sing it at a party. In the opening sequence Davis skillfully conflates the opera’s first and final Acts and Scarpia’s death into a seven-minute digest. Davis does more than use Puccini, for he provides brass fanfares for the titles and there is a swirling waltz for scene-setting in Vienna, and animated brass and percussion for a tumultuous meeting at a railway station. The music takes a Slavic turn as the action moves to Warsaw with polkas and polonaises and a spirited Russian dance at a climactic moment.
Garbo is often characterised as a star that radiates light from within. Certainly, Niblo’s direction and the cinematography by William Daniels create many glowing close-ups and Davis provides a shimmering quality that mirrors these moments as we register the nuances of emotion on her face.
Beforehand, the only surviving fragment of The Divine Woman was aired. A soldier on leave spends a night with a rising young actress (Garbo) who persuades him to stay rather than rejoin his regiment. It has some similarities to Carmen and Davis’s score has more than a touch of Bizet with military-sounding brass and smoky woodwind. It is directed by Victor Seastrom who also directed the masterly The Wind (1928) and thirty years later starred in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. It looks like a major film and its loss is tragic.
The Philharmonia Orchestra always enjoys its trips to the cinema and played well for Davis. He ensured smooth coordination between sound and image and drew committed and energetic playing, demonstrating the continuing power of silent film and its greatest practitioners.