The Spy in Black View large image

Film Details

Directed by: Michael Powell

Produced: 1939

Countries & Regions: United Kingdom

DVD Details

Certificate: U

Studio: Spirit

Length: 78 mins

Format: DVD

Region: Region 2

Released: 20 February 2012

Cat No: STW0032

Languages(s): English
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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

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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




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Set in the Scottish Orkney Islands during the First World War, this is the story of three German spies plotting to sink the British fleet. U-Boat Captain Hardt (Conrad 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). The tensions in the group affect their operation as a unit.

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.

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