The Spy in Black

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Known in the USA as U-Boat 29, The Spy in Black is the better and the original title of the first film made by the powerhouse pairing of director Michael Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger. If that was all it had to offer it would be worth a look. But it is also a tight and thrilling spy caper bubbling with a typical Powell and Pressburger humanity.

It was made when the Second World War looked obvious and opened in the UK in 1939 as war was breaking out. Its star is Berlin-born Nazi-hating Conrad Veidt, who plays Ernst Hardt, a German U-Boat captain who arrives under cover of the night on a Scottish island, from where he plans to sabotage the British fleet at anchor in the bay.

Aiding Hardt is local schoolteacher Miss Burnett. A recent arrival on the island, “Miss Burnett” is actually a German, Fräulein Thiel (Valerie Hobson), a spy who is both Hardt’s contact and his superior. A turncoat Brit, the alcoholic Ashington (Sebastian Shaw), peeved at having been passed over for some preferrment, completes the trio. Though it will turn out, in the fullness of time, that a lot of people in this story are not quite who they say they are. Of which no more later.

Powell and Pressburger tell their story at speed, in a drama full of florid characters sketched out in quite a lot of detail. For a spy thriller there’s quite a lot of comic business and it seems obvious both men had seen The 39 Steps – so much humour wrung from marital strife and dour Scottish religiosity.

As in their later propaganda movies – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp most obviously – Powell and Pressburger go out of their way to make the point that Germans and Brits are not so different. There’s an early scene where the fake Miss Burnett schools the newly arrived Hardt in the pronunciation of the word “butter” – same word in English and German, just said differently – and while the Brits are undeniably presented as having right on their side, that doesn’t make the Germans bad people. Captain Hardt is presented as brave, honourable, a decent man doing what he must to serve his country. He’s the “spy in black” because he refuses to switch into civvies and stays in his German navy uniform (there is also a practical reason for this – if he’s caught in disguise he’ll be shot as a spy; if in uniform he’ll be a prisoner of war).

Valerie Hobson poses as Miss Burnett
Miss Burnett or Miss Thiel, take your pick

Pressburger’s screenplay squeezes fun from the fact that Veidt is about 46 to Hobson’s 22, and that Fräulein Thiel is Hardt’s ranking officer, but he’s less sure what to do about a possible romance between Hardt and Thiel, advancing into the territory only to retreat again.

The big messages: innocent people get caught up in murky business in wartime; there are good Germans as well as decent Brits.

This is all set in 1917 but it could easily be 1939. The intention clearly is to set this story in the midst of the upcoming war which hadn’t yet been declared. By the time the film opened it had, and it didn’t do The Spy in Black any favours at the box office – one of the first things the government did when war was declared was close cinemas.

Some obvious model shots and a bit of newsreel footage to one side, it’s a good-looking film, especially on the British Film Institute restoration I watched, with good, crisp, clean cinematography (by Bernard Browne) which occasionally yields to the urge for an expressionistic wonky angle but in the main is all about getting the story across without stylistic interference.

The real joy of it is Pressburger’s screenplay. So many minor characters are fleshed out, like the busybody Presbyterian minister endlessly concerned for the moral welfare of “Miss Burnett”. Or the engineer on board the ship where the final scenes play out, with his gripes about the wear on the ship’s old engine when the captain calls for full steam ahead – “it’s murdering my bearings”. The inspiration for Scotty from Star Trek?

Talking of the ending, after a drama that’s been set largely in the one or two rooms attached to Miss Burnett’s schoolhouse, Powell and Pressburger suddenly shift everything to the high seas, where power relations switch this way and that, ships chase ships, the German U-Boat re-appears and final scenes play out that manage all at the same time to be thrilling, emotionally satisfying, humane and ironic. A neat climax that sums up the entire film.

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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