Spy In Black, The (1939 with Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson)

UK / 1939

Director: Michael Powell
Writer: Emeric Pressburger, from Roland Pertwee’s adaptation of the novel by J Storer Clouston

Cast: Conrad Veidt, Valerie Hobson, Sebastian Shaw, Marius Goring, June Duprez, Athole Stewart, Agnes Laughlin, Helen Haye, Cyril Raymond

“Alex Korda used to say that I was the greatest technician he ever knew in his film career,” said Michael Powell, “he gave me a job when nobody else would and when he didn’t even know where his next million was coming from.” In 1937 Powell was considering going to Hollywood when Alexander Korda offered him a one-year contract. The first project, Burmese Silver, fell through and Powell was assigned to this taut espionage thriller about which Film Weekly wrote: “This is a spy story with a plot sufficiently different – and disciplined – to be freshly interesting and vigorously different”.

During World War One German submarine commander-turned-agent Conrad Veidt is ordered to make contact with a German agent posing as a village schoolteacher in the Orkneys. But the British Secret Service has learned of his scheme to use information from a British naval officer to give U-boats the location of a large number of British warships and Valerie Hobson, the wife of a naval officer, takes the place of his contact. Too late, Veidt realizes the truth. Disguised, he makes a desperate attempt to escape on the local ferry, releases the German prisoners on board and tries to reach the German fleet to warn it. But the ferry is sunk by Veidt’s U-boat then a British submarine sinks Veidt’s vessel…

The Spy in Black marked the first felicitous teaming of Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a collaboration that later produced such classics as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death. Pressburger, brought in by Korda to resolve the stalemate that had grown between Powell and producer Irving Asher, completely refashioned Roland Pertwee’s original material and, noted Powell: “The script was typically Emeric. Well you know it’s the way Hungarians see the world. They always see the world inside out. All their jokes are reverse jokes. They deal in paradoxes, that’s why Chesterton is to them a revered writer”.

Pressburger wrote the shooting script as filming progressed, and, complemented by Powell’s atmospheric direction and effective location filming in the Orkneys and Scapa Flow, The Spy in Black emerged as a hugely entertaining piece of work. German-born Veidt (who, married to a Jewish wife, had had to leave Germany when the Nazis came to power) gave a forceful and impressive performance and, said Monthly Film Bulletin, “is brilliant in the lead. He is throughout a tragic if slightly sinister figure, and wins respect and sympathy as a patriot with the qualities most admirable in soldier, sailor or airman of any nationality – loyalty, courage, obedience and steadfast endurance” and went on: “Hobson is delightful… the remaining players are all excellent in their different ways”. CEA Film Report agreed, noting, “Sebastian Shaw is good as a British naval lieutenant… Hay Petrie supplied an amusing comedy… and other good performances come from Marius Goring, Cyril Raymond, June Duprez, Athole Stewart and Agnes Laughlin”.

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