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  • “She Makes Love for the Papers”: Love, Sex, and Exploitation in Hitchcock’s Mata Hari Films
  • Nora Gilbert

Many critics consider North by Northwest (1959) to be, as Raymond Bellour has put it, Alfred Hitchcock’s “lavish rejoinder” to his earlier (1935), similarly plotted The 39 Steps (77). And, indeed, when viewed through the eyes of the narratives’ male protagonists, the two films can be seen to trace almost identical trajectories of false accusation, police pursuit, and inadvertent submersion in international espionage activity. But, if we choose instead to view North by Northwest through the eyes of its female lead, it is far more accurate to label it as a rejoinder to another earlier film about a woman who is prostituted by her country in the name of patriotism: Notorious (1946). Placed in the tenuous position of the mythologized Mata Hari sex-spy, both Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) are forced to negotiate a complex web of seduction, deception, romance, and duty. This Mata Hari subplot examines a calloused American government that pimps its female citizens for political gain.

Even though the legend of Mata Hari as “the greatest woman spy of the century”1 has been largely debunked by historians in recent years, the iconic erotic dancer who was executed by the French army for treason in the midst of World War I continues to symbolize a certain politicized brand of the femme fatale within the cultural imagination. And since, as Mary Ann Doane notes, “the femme fatale has a special relevance in cinematic representation” (1), it is not surprising that Mata Hari-style seductresses have been routinely featured on the silver screen. For the most part, these characters play into the stereotype of the conniving, sexually rapacious, deceitful woman, leading many feminist critics to complain that they reinforce and promote male fears about female sexuality. 2 Moreover, historians like Tammy Proctor have demonstrated the extent to which the false image of the sultry “spy-courtesan” has overshadowed and belittled the very real contributions made by women who have served in civil or military positions as part of the intelligence community over the years—women who “worked as soldiers, not seductresses” (5). But the two heroines of North by Northwest and Notorious who are explicitly linked to the legend of Mata Hari throughout the course of their narratives function in a different way than the majority of their celluloid sisters, for their stories have less in common with the fictive tale of sexual dominance, romantic intrigue, and political [End Page 6] betrayal that was told by prosecutors during Mata Hari’s war trial than with the revised account of Dutch-born Margaretha Zelle’s beleaguered life in espionage to which most historians give credence today.

In 1985, the French minister of National Defense was persuaded to break the seal on court documents that were supposed to be kept in confidence until 2017, one hundred years from the date of Mata Hari’s execution. According to the evidence uncovered therein, Mata Hari had agreed to spy just twice in her life. The first time was in May of 1916, when she accepted 20,000 francs from the Germans to perform some low-level informing for them. But Mata Hari did not, in fact, provide the Germans with any information; to her mind, the money was payback for some furs which had been confiscated in Berlin at the outset of the war. The second time that Mata Hari took on a spy commission was in September of 1916, this time for the French. Her reasons for agreeing to spy for the French were three-fold. First, she needed money, demanding the staggering sum of one million francs for her work. Second, she had recently fallen in love (for the first time in her life) with a blinded, 21-year-old Russian officer who was laid up in a French war hospital; she hoped that agreeing to help the Allied cause would gain her the permit she needed to visit him. Third, she wanted to replenish her sense of importance, which had begun to dwindle since her prominence a decade earlier as the toast of the Parisian...


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