Spy in Black, The (1939)

vt U-Boat 29
UK / 79 minutes / bw / Harefield, London Film, Columbia
Dir: Michael Powell
Pr: Irving Asher, Alexander Korda (uncredited)
Scr: Emeric Pressburger, Roland Pertwee
Story: The Spy in Black (1917) by J. Storer Clouston
Cine: Bernard Browne
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Sebastian Shaw, Valerie Hobson, Marius Goring, June Duprez, Athole Stewart, Agnes Lauchlan, Helen Haye, Cyril Raymond, George Summers, Hay Petrie, Grant Sutherland, Robert Rendel, Mary Morris, Margaret Moffatt, Kenneth Warrington, Torin Thatcher.

Spy in Black - 0a opener

Spy in Black - 0b opener

In 1917 the German newspapers are full of propaganda to the effect that the country’s U-boat campaign to sink food vessels has brought Britain to the verge of starvation. U-boat commander Captain Ernst Hardt (Veidt) and his second-in-command, Lt. David Schuster (Goring), are all too well aware, though, that food shortages are just as rampant at home. No sooner have they returned to Berlin on leave than they’re sent out on a fresh mission—a secret one to the Orkney Islands, far off Scotland’s northwest tip, where the British destroyer fleet is based. There Hardt is to go ashore and make contact with the new schoolteacher at Longhope, supposedly called Anne Burnett but in fact a German spy called Fraulein Tiel (Hobson).

We see the real Anne Burnett (Duprez)—the name’s spelled Ann in a newspaper report but Anne in the credits—being abducted as she sets off for the Orkneys by the stately grandame Mrs. Sedley (Haye) and her steely chauffeuse Edwards (Morris); they drug her and throw her over a cliff. Now the way is open for Tiel to take her place.

Hardt lands and, with suspicious ease, makes his way to the Longhope schoolhouse. There he’s immediately attracted to Tiel, an attraction that’s not entirely unreciprocated; the ambiguity over her feelings for him is retained throughout the movie, but in the short term she avoids difficulty by pointing out that his instructions are to obey her orders, and by locking him in his own bedroom. Needless to say, he bridles more than a little over being told what to do by a mere woman.

Spy in Black - 1 Tiel reacts to Bratt's reproof over blackout breach

“Fraulein Tiel” (Valerie Hobson) reacts to Bratt’s reproof over her blackout breach.

Next day she introduces him to the sleazy Lt. Ashington (Shaw), a drunken Royal Navy officer who’s so full of resentment over being dismissed from his most recent captaincy that he’s turned traitor. Ashington fills Hardt in on the plan, which is for Hardt’s U-boats to follow a group of fifteen destroyers as they go out on exercise in a few days’ time, and sink the lot. Tiel explains to Hardt that she was part of the price for Ashington’s treachery, and this makes him dislike the man even more.

Spy in Black - 2 Hardt and 'Tiel' share the joy of cigs

The joy of cigs: “Fraulein Tiel” (Valerie Hobson) and Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) share some second-hand smoke.

Matters soon become complicated, though, partly because of constant prurient attempts to interfere in Tiel’s life by the local Wee Free minister, the Reverend Hector Matthews (Stewart), and partly through the arrival on the island of the real Anne Burnett’s fiancé, the Reverend John Harris (Raymond), Vicar of St. Swithin’s, who has brought a vastly horned gramophone for her so she can while away the long Orkney nights by spinning all the latest groovy platters—patriotic marching songs seem to be the order of the day. The conspirators grab him and tie him up.

Spy in Black - 3 Harris gets fed by 'Tiel'

Vicar in bondage: the Reverend John Harris (Cyril Raymond) at the tender mercies of “Fraulein Tiel” (Valerie Hobson).

What has been very well concealed from us and obviously from Hardt is that “Fraulein Tiel” is no German spy at all but Jill Blacklock, wife of the highly regarded Commander David Blacklock, who has in turn impersonated Ashington. Apparently Anne Burnett survived her fall from the cliff, was picked up, and was able to alert the British authorities, who accordingly snatched the real Fraulein Tiel and substituted Jill. The trap that the Germans thought they were setting for British destroyers has now become a trap for the German U-boats.

Because the Blacklocks are careless, Hardt realizes what’s going on. Using the tied-up Harris’s clerical togs as disguise, he escapes to board the local ferry, the St. Magnus. Finding that the ferry also has on board a number of German PoWs, he’s soon able to take the vessel over and launch an attempt to thwart the British plans . . .

Spy in Black - 4 Hardt assesses his chances from aboard St Magnus

Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) bleakly assesses his chances from aboard the St. Magnus.

Released as it was on the eve of the outbreak of WWII, the movie displays an admirable respect for its German characters. Hardt and Schuster are portrayed as likeable fellows, and Hardt in particular as a man of great honor. When at one point he upbraids “Fraulein Tiel” for having (as he believes) been a cog in the conspiracy that murdered the innocent and defenseless Anne Burnett, she responds by asking him if many of those aboard the ships he sinks aren’t equally innocent civilians, and we can see the point hit home. When he takes over the St. Magnus he’s careful to spare life, and after it’s become evident his ploy is doomed he not only does nothing to stop the ferry’s crew and passengers escaping on the lifeboats, he encourages “his” Germans to do the same. He declines to kill Harris when that would have been an easy solution. Although he feels entirely betrayed by “Fraulein Tiel” and believes her to be a threat, he doesn’t kill her or even strike her. It’s easy to see why she could have felt her heart stir for him.

In terms of cinema history, this is noteworthy as the first of many collaborations between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; they were brought together by Alexander Korda for what everyone assumed would be just another quota quickie, and soon went on to make “Powell–Pressburger” a marque of international significance. Here, although the paucity of budget is occasionally visible (much of the footage of ships at sea is obviously from stock and some of the rest of it is just as obviously modeled), for most of the time we’re too swept in by the movie to notice. Powell’s direction is as near as dammit impeccable, and of course he’s backed up by a stellar cast, notably Veidt and Hobson. This high quality extends right down through the supporting roles, including Marius Goring as the chummy German submariner who makes us feel a genuine regret over the sinking of the German U-boat (throughout, the movie takes a nuanced approach to matters of evil and enmity, suggesting that war is the enemy, not those who fight it on one side or the other). Also of note among the supporting cast are the distinguished Scots comic actor Hay Petrie as the St. Magnus‘s cantankerous engineer, James (a template for Star Trek‘s Scotty!), forever worried about his “bottom ends” (whatever those are), and Athole Stewart as the self-righteous, avaricious minister, who will never realize why his wife (Lauchlan) is a whole lot more likely to get to Heaven than he is.

Spy in Black - 5 Hay Petrie in a great wee performance

Hay Petrie gives a great wee performance as the ship’s engineer James.

There are plenty of good lines in what’s a very polished screenplay, especially when you consider that this was supposed to be just a quota quickie. For example, after the German U-boats have managed to pick their way through the minefield the Brits have laid around the Orkneys, there’s this exchange:

Submariner: “Whoever got the chart of that minefield deserves the Iron Cross.”
Hardt: “Yes. We shouldn’t have had even a wooden one without it.”

On the relatively few downsides, the scenes shot aboard Hardt’s U-boat are given a loud hum; this may be verisimilitudinous—I have no idea—but it’s sure as hell profoundly irritating: you keep wanting to give the screen a bang to stop it. And then there’s the motorbike that Hardt has been given to camouflage the fact that he’s just debarked from a submarine: (a) why carry it to the Orkneys on the sub when it’d have been far easier to arrange that one of the spy cell deliver it to him? and (b) why does its motor suddenly go silent when Hardt must slip by officious Special Constable Bob Bratt (Sutherland) in order to make his rendezvous with “Fraulein Tiel”?

Those are small matters, though. Overall, this is a splendidly done little movie, and it’s no surprise, watching it, that the Powell–Pressburger team would become so significant. The Spy in Black is also refreshingly honest for a UK movie of its era about sex: there are no bones made about the fact that the character “Fraulein Tiel” is no virgin, despite her (supposed) single status, and that the fräulein would without compunction, should the mood take her, sleep with Hardt; while the prudish/prurient attitudes of the Reverend Matthews are almost openly mocked.

J. Storer Clouston was the author of a whole string of novels, many set in the Orkneys, where he made his home. His most famous of those novels is probably the remarkably tart satire The Lunatic at Large (1899); it reads as surprisingly modern even today. I haven’t read The Spy in Black, so have no idea whether or not it’s similar in this.

Valerie Hobson married the Conservative politician John Profumo in 1954. Just a few years later, in 1961, her husband had a fling with the prostitute Christine Keeler, and when this came to public light in 1963 and Profumo lied to the House of Commons about it . . . well, the rest is history, as was Profumo’s career. To her very great credit, Hobson stuck by him throughout the scandal, and they remained married until her death in 1998.

Spy in Black - x wherever looks good


On Amazon.com: Spy in Black

This entry has been written and posted as part of the #1939book challenge mounted by Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction.

8 thoughts on “Spy in Black, The (1939)

  1. Fabulous review of this obviously significant film in the pre-eminence of Powell and Pressberger. Yes this was a first collaboration, and in a number of ways it is impressive. Certainly the cast, and the remarkably tame treatment of the Germans, (great point about the one character being a template for Star Trek’s Scottie). I believe this may have been Conrad Veidt’s last film in Europe before moving on to the US, where he died of a heart attack a few years later. Really excellent work here John! And I’m definitely a fan of this film!

    • He seems to have done at least one more in the UK, Contraband (1940) — again a Powell-Pressburger item — before making the move.

      When I saw this movie as a child I was terrified by the sequence in which the young schoolmarm is abducted by the old lady and her chauffeuse; I had occasional nightmares for a while about the latter.

  2. Pingback: Bodies for Fun with a Pencil: The #1939book crime round-up | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  3. Pingback: Voice of Merrill, The (1952) | Noirish

  4. John, I’ve just seen this one and enjoyed your review of it. I was impressed with the remarkable even-handedness of this WW1 film made at the outbreak of WW2 and impressed that the Germans aren’t stereotyped villains. I like your comment that it suggests “that war is the enemy, not those who fight it on one side or the other”. I also liked the Scottish humour, and agree it would be good to know what the ship’s “bottom ends” are!

    • Hi, Judy. Many thanks for the kind words! I’m so glad you enjoyed the movie. Although it’s modest by today’s standards, I have quite a soft spot for it.

  5. I’m a poor critic but I recognise a good film when I see one, and this is a good film. Watching it was a brilliant way to spend eighty minutes, and I will watch it again. Your review is by far the most intelligent and perceptive I have read of the film. I hope I get time to browse your website.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.