Directed by: Michael Powell
Countries & Regions: United Kingdom
Length: 78 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 20 February 2012
Cat No: STW0032
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The Spy in Black
Cast: Hay Petrie , Sebastian Shaw , Conrad Veidt , June Duprez , Marius Goring , Valerie Hobson , Mary Morris , Helen Haye , Cyril Raymond , Grant Sutherland , Athole Stewart , Agnes Lauchlan , Robert Rendel , George Summers , Margaret Moffatt
Set in the Scottish Orkney Islands during the First World War, this is the story of three German spies plotting to sink the British... Read More
This thrilling WWI adventure sees Conrad Veidt as Captain Hardt, a German U-boat commander dispatched to a village on the Orkney Islands in order to destroy the resident British fleet.
Hardt arrives to find he is to be harboured by Fraulein Tiel (Valerie Hobson), a German agent who has taken the identity of a schoolteacher, Anne Burnett, whose journey to the village has been derailed by Tiel’s nefarious colleagues. As he settles in to ‘domestic’ life with Tiel, Hardt finds he is attracted to her. But she has thoughts of her own about how the mission should be carried out.
In lacing this rich brew of drama and suspense with a generous splash of dry humour, director Michael Powell showed he was more than up to the role just vacated by the Hollywood-bound Alfred Hitchcock, as The Spy in Black easily bears comparison with ‘the Master’s’ then-recent classics of the genre, The 39 Steps and Secret Agent.
Powell’s assured touches of individuality were already shining through: the wartime verisimilitude is enhanced by heightened, atmospheric visuals (the foggy studio sets evoking the craggy Scottish landscape are great) and the women in the film (particularly Hobson) turn in refreshingly strident performances. Moreover, Powell occasionally lets loose his soon-to-be-characteristic penchant for expressionism, not least in the way he frames and lights Captain Hardt’s face, which at times pays unmistakable homage to the sinister beauty of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and other, earlier Veidt classics. But Hardt is also afforded a human side, and the romantic tension between Veidt and Hobson unwinds effectively.
In its depiction of a German ‘invasion’ of a bucolic British village, The Spy in Black prefigures Cavalacanti’s WWII drama, Went the Day Well?, by a few years. It also anticipated World War II itself (it was released just prior to the 1939 breakout of Anglo-German hostilities).
The film is most significant now of course as the first pairing of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who served as its screenwriter), but it has more than stood the test of time and is a classic in its own right.