The Spy in Black

BLUF: A well-paced, taught spy thriller.  Watch it for the cinematography, for Veidt’s superb performance as Captain Hardt, and because it’s interesting to think how it would never have been made a year or two later.  Skip it if you get bored when something doesn’t blow up at regular intervals or you have no patience for semi-shoddy plot contrivances.

From RT: The Spy In Black is the story of a German World War I submarine captain (Conrad Veidt) who is given a mission to discover British intelligence secrets. Once he arrives in the Orkney Islands, he meets up with a female schoolteacher (Valerie Hobson), who happens to be a German agent. Veidt falls in love with Hobson before discovering she’s actually a double agent for the British. In America, Spy in Black was originally released under the title U-Boat 29.

Three Reasons:

1. It was the first collaboration between Powell and Pressburger, AKA “the Archers.”  These guys knew what they were doing; their catalog includes The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and Black Narcissus (1947).  And while this film may not reach the level of Blimp or Narcissus, it clearly shows their promise.

2. It’s beautifully shot.  I assumed the cinematographer to be Jack Cardiff, but it’s actually Bernard Browne.  The setting is the Orkney Islands of Scotland, it was shot in part on location, and it takes on an atmospheric, almost noirish feel that works wonderfully well with the story.  

3. Astonishingly, considering it was released in 1939, the story is told from the perspective of the German spy, Captain Hardt, played not unsympathetically by Conrad Veidt.  Captain Hardt it turns out has a heart and almost loses it to double agent Frau Tiel, played by Valerie Hobson.  Hardt is no fool, however, and he manages to lead his enemy on a satisfying cat and mouse chase before a bitterly ironic fate ultimately catches up with him.  A clever, proud, and resourceful man, Captain Hardt is depicted admirably as a capable sailor, following orders and making hard decisions without losing his humanity along the way.  Frau Tiel develops genuine concern for him, and so do we as the audience, which lends the film a surprising and unexpected poignancy.

The twist upon which the plot depends is pretty paper thin and there’s an annoying bit of melodrama from Hobson’s character toward the end, but those willing to cut it a little slack will be rewarded.      



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