The Spy in Black (1939)

Spy in Black (1939)
 Run Time: 82 min. | b/w
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Valerie Hobson, Sebastian Shaw, Marius Goring
 Genres: Thriller | War
Storyline
A top-notch spy thriller. Adding depth to the espionage plotting is the electricity passing between Veidt, the clever German spy, and Hobson, the equally tricky British agent, who fall for each other despite their best efforts to be cold-bloodedly patriotic.
Box Office
Budget: £47,300 (estimated)

4 Comments

  1. IMDBReviewer

    August 9, 2016 at 8:52 am

    I first saw this movie on Derby Day 1939 at the then Capitol Cinema in Epsom Surrey UK when I had intended to watch the world famous horse race to be run that day on the nearby Epsom Downs. However, the weather was so wet and windy that I decided to go to a cinema instead. Having just watched the film on television I find that it thrilled me just as much as an octogenarian as it did when I was a teenager in 1939. In my view this is one of the finest of the 1930s British films. The fine quality of the direction and the talent of the principal actors and supporting cast make this a memorable piece of fiction which accurately reflects the narrow attitudes to manners that prevailed in remote parts of Scotland during the time of the first world war.

  2. Anonymous

    August 9, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Just wanted to second the other user’s comment.

    I saw this last night as part of a Michael Powell/Emeric Pressberger retrospective underway at the American Cinemetheque. There are some unlikely aspects to the plot, but on the whole this is well crafted WWI thriller with a remarkable level of moral complexity, especially given that it was made and released just as England was entering a second war against Germany.

    The protagonist (hero?) (played by the extraordinary Conrad Veidt) is a German officer on a spy mission and he is, in many respects, a quite admirable character. For the first half of the film, it’s almost entirely from his point of view. It’s hard to imagine Hollywood filmmakers EVER having the confidence that Powell and Pressberger clearly had in the intelligence of their audience, allowing them to actually like and admire an enemy agent.

    While "The Spy in Black" eventually does come down squarely on the side of the English, the agents of the Kaiser come off only as perhaps a hair more ruthless than those fighting for king and country.

    Of course, the Germany that England would be fighting within a few a few months would be far, far worse. This film is a potent reminder that while World War II might have a morally clear "good" war because of the vast evil of the Nazis, World War I was a horse of a far grayer color.

    With sophisticated, occasionally black humor, this is a neat bit of old-fashioned movie entertainment with some genuinely intriguing differences. Enthusaistically recommended.

  3. IMDBReviewer

    August 9, 2016 at 8:52 am

    This is an entertaining, well-made spy adventure set during World War I. Although made 60 years ago, the film has a sophisticated approach to the relationship between its three main characters. In particular, the natural attraction between the parts played by Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson is portrayed believably. Many of the supporting characters are also interesting; look out for Hay Petrie as the Scottish engineer aboard a ferry and an early appearance by Bernard Miles as a hotel desk clerk. Unlike the majority of British movies of this period, the film doesn’t stereotype or make fun of its working-class characters.

    The story has several good twists and an ironic climax. There are also some improbable coincidences, but no more than the typical James Bond movie.

    Unlike Bond, however, "The Spy in Black" adopts a quite dark tone in its final 20 minutes. There is an almost tragic dignity and regret in the final scenes.

    Director Michael Powell composes some interestingly-framed shots that make good use of Vincent Korda’s sets. One of his favourite devices is to set a key character in sharp focus in the background while lesser parts stand or move slightly out-of-focus in the foreground. The effect is often quite striking.

    This film marks Powell’s first collaboration with the Hungarian writer Emeric Pressburger. The maturity of the romance between the leads and the snappiness of the dialogue are probably attributable to Pressburger’s European upbringing.

    Despite its age, "The Spy in Black" is well worth seeing just for the simple pleasures of a well-made entertainment executed with a little more care and imagination than usual.

  4. IMDBReviewer

    August 9, 2016 at 8:52 am

    During the World War, a German U-boat comes up on the coast of Scotland. At this point Captain Hardt leaves the vessel and travels to a small village to meet his contact. He plans to use the treacherous assistance of bitter Royal Navy Lieutenant Ashington to guide the Germans to the spot of the British fleet. However not all is fair in love and war and Hardt soon finds his operation at risk of compromise.

    Of course, much more famous for The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death, this film from Powell and Pressburger should not be over looked. While it is of course propaganda (released as it was in 1939), it is not a flag waving, lets all kill the Nazi’s under the bed style film. Instead it stands up in it’s own right as an exciting little thriller that makes some good points about the nature of war. The plot is quite straightforward at first but has a few nice twists that I won’t spoil, and is generally enjoyable.

    The strength of the film for me was the focus on a German Officer and not having him as a stereotypical evil tyrant. While the film doesn’t let us wonder who the good guys and the bad guys are, it does at least allow Hardt to be more of a full person and the film better as a result. The ironies of the final action of the film is clear and is even more of a striking comment on war when you look at the `blue on blue’ stats for Gulf War 2. Veidt does well in the lead as Hardt and is partly responsible for keeping him a bad guy without over egging the cake. Shaw and Hobson are good but perhaps a little too much of the `Heroic Brits’ about them.

    Overall this is a good wartime thriller but the unusual tack that it comes at, plus a darker and slightly subversive tone about it helps it stand out, if not from the rest of P&P’s work, then certainly from the vast majority of wartime propaganda thrillers made in Britain around the second world war.

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