The Spy in Black (1939)

Approved  |   |  Thriller, War  |  7 October 1939 (USA)
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Ratings: 7.0/10 from 1,142 users  
Reviews: 13 user | 22 critic

A German submarine is sent to the Orkney Isles in 1917 to sink the British fleet.



(story), (screenplay), 1 more credit »
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Cast overview, first billed only:
The School Mistress
Marius Goring ...
Anne Burnett
Athole Stewart ...
The Rev. Hector Matthews
Agnes Lauchlan ...
Mrs. Matthews
Helen Haye ...
Mrs. Sedley
Cyril Raymond ...
The Rev. John Harris
George Summers ...
Captain Ratter
Hay Petrie ...
Grant Sutherland ...
Bob Bratt
Robert Rendel ...
Mary Morris ...
Margaret Moffatt ...


When a German U-Boat captain is sent on a spying mission to the North of Scotland during World War One, he finds more than he bargained for in his contact, the local schoolmistress. Written by Ian Harries <>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis




Thriller | War


Approved | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

7 October 1939 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

The Spy in Black  »

Box Office


£47,300 (estimated)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

(Western Electric Mirrophonic Recording)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


The password that Hardt is to use for his contact is the opening line of Heine's poem Die Lorelei, in which a beautiful woman, who lures sailors on the rocks, is used as a symbol of homesickness. When his crew joke about him spouting love poetry to a woman in the dark, they miss half of the point. See more »


During the closeup of the kidnapping on the train about 15 minutes into the movie, the rapidly passing scenery is clearly being projected onto a screen as the screen edges are visible, and the peoples' shadows are also projected onto the screen. See more »


The Reverand John Harris: That medal ribbon. I don't seem to recognise it. What is it?
Captain Hardt: The Iron Cross... Second Class.
The Reverand John Harris: Second Class... then you must be a prisoner of war?
Captain Hardt: No.
[draws gun]
Captain Hardt: You are.
The Reverand John Harris: Oh dear.
See more »

Crazy Credits

Opening credits prologue: KIEL BASE OF THE GERMAN GRAND FLEET 1917 See more »


Featured in Dad's Army: The Big Parade (1970) See more »

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User Reviews

Clever wartime thriller that has darker tones than much propaganda
12 April 2003 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

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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