The Spy in Black DVD
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Directed by Michael Powell
Produced in 1939
Main Language - English
Countries & Regions - British Film
This first collaboration between Powell and Pressburger stars Conrad Veidt as a shadowy German spy sent to scuttle the British fleet. Powell's touch is already assured, says Julian Upton.
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.
Julian Upton on 16th January 2012
Author of 150 reviews
Marking the first collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Spy in Black is an atmospheric spy thriller in which a shadowy German spy (Conrad Veidt) seeks to destroy a large number of the British fleet during WWI.
In the Orkney Islands during the First World War, three German spies plot to sink the British fleet. U-Boat Captain Hardt (Veidt) makes contact with his beautiful co-conspirator (Valerie Hobson). He falls in love with her - but she is already having an affair with the third spy in their group, Royal Navy traitor Lieutenant Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).
Length: 78 mins
Cat No: STW0032
Format: DVD B&W
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