World War II ended more than half a century ago, but heretofore unknown stories are still surfacing from it. Few, if any, are more fascinating that the eponymous subject of Edmond Roch’s stylishly engrossing documentary, GARBO: THE SPY. A Spanish double-agent working in wartime Lisbon and London, he was given his deliberately Hollywood name by one of his handlers, who dubbed him the best actor who ever lived.
Though his real name is revealed early on, and with a story that demonstrates the ease with which information can be pumped from even the most wary; though his life story threads its way through the narrative, and, appropriately enough, illustrated as much by Hollywood films as by eyewitnesses, the filmmaker cannily refuses to foreshadow what became of this master of espionage. When the reveal comes, it is as unexpected as it is delightfully in keeping with Garbo’s exploits. And the exploits included nothing less than fooling the Nazis about where the D-Day invasion would land.
The film clips, from PIMPERNEL SMITH, OUR MAN IN HAVANNA, and THE LONGEST DAY among others, illustrate the many facets of Garbo’s personality with the gloss of the legend he became, as recounted by different people, some of whom he knew, some of whom have made a study of him. Nobility in the face of evil, the duplicity inherent in the spy game, the wildly improbably way he became a spy, and the even more improbable way he fooled many, including the Nazis up to and including Hitler himself. A seemingly unremarkable man, from an equally unremarkable background, Garbo used a boundless imagination, and an infallible, instinctive sense of what lies would work, he produced literally volumes of detailed disinformation that appealed to what the reader wanted to believe.
In contrast, and for a smartly added context, there is the far more quotidian, and one uses that word only in context, life and times of a spy as lived by the elegant and eloquent Aline Griffith, Countess of Romanones, in a vintage interview talking about her days as a spy in Spain, and her still pronounced distaste for the way her publisher insisted on changing her code name in her memoirs. Vintage propaganda films add a sense of the contemporary mindset,
For more context there are DVD extras that include an extended interview with Nigel West, the historian of intelligence work who finds Garbo to be the quintessential spy, as well as a WWII training film that makes a nice annotation to the propaganda clips in the film.
GARBO: THE SPY does an excellent job of maintaining the sense of mystery and even glamour about Garbo, and that is its greatest strength. With a story this compelling, a straightforward approach would have made for a thoroughly competent, thoroughly interesting documentary. Garbo’s story deserved better, and it got it.