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The Spy in Black (1939)

Approved | | Thriller, War | 7 October 1939 (USA)
A German submarine is sent to the Orkney Isles in 1917 to sink the British fleet.



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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 Moffat ...
Kate (as 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 <ih@doc.ic.ac.uk>

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?


St Magnus (the name of the steamer sailing from Longhope for St Romness and Thurso during the closing stages of the film) is the Patron Saint of Orkney. There have been several ships in that area with the name St Magnus. 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

The distributor in the film's opening credits is shown as: KEY TO SUCCESS Key Films Distributors Ltd. presents See more »


Referenced in Churchill and the Cabinet War Rooms (1995) See more »

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User Reviews

Excellent British naval espionage thriller of the thirties
12 January 2014 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

This film was the first collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. In this case, Michael Powell was the director, at which he did a superb job, and Pressburger wrote the screenplay, based upon a story by J. Storer Clouston. Four of Clouston's novels were filmed (one twice) between 1917 and 1939, this being the last. The other which tends to be known by cinéastes gave the story to Marcel Carné's farce set in Victorian London, DROLE DE DRAME (1937). This film, set in the First World War, is notable for the first credited appearance in a feature film of Marius Goring, who the following year would be so brilliant in the mystery film THE CASE OF THE FRIGHTENED LADY (1940, see my review), and go on to a splendid career. Here he plays Lieutenant Schuster, second in command of the German submarine U-29. The captain of that submarine is played by one of my favourite actors of the period, Conrad Veidt, whose early death only four years later at the age of only 50 was a great loss to the cinema, despite the fact that by that time he had already made 118 films (maybe that's what killed him!) Veidt is as usual noted for his gravitas and presence, and does an excellent job, despite there not being any character development or any scenes offering any particular acting challenge. The female lead is Valerie Hobson, who instead of being her usual beautiful and romantic self, here has to play an icy German agent. But in fact she is really a double agent, i.e. a British agent posing as a German agent. When she is being a British agent she is very nice, but when she is being a German agent, she is horrid. And of course that is very appropriate. This film was produced just before the Second World War began, and was a useful 'shot across the bow' of the complacent Chamberlain faction, reminding the public of the dangers of the Hun. In fact we see lots of real shots across the bow in this film because it involves naval espionage and naval actions. A considerable amount of real footage of the British fleet is incorporated in the film, showing many ships which must have been sunk within two or three years of the filming. We see battleships firing their guns, depths charges being fired by destroyers, ships travelling in convoy, and military historians can only react with glee at all these glimpses of the British Navy as it was just before hostilities with Germany recommenced. For the modern DVD, the film has been perfectly and lovingly remastered and restored by the British Film Institute's restoration team, those insufficiently appreciated heroes of the cinema, who by their expertise have preserved so much that is precious of our cinematic heritage, which would otherwise have been lost. (For one of their greatest triumphs, see the amazing silent film, UNDERGROUND, of 1928, and my review of it.) As for the story of this film, it is rather complicated and a gripping yarn. Helen Haye (who so dominated THE CASE OF THE FRIGHTENED LADY mentioned above) appears here as an arrogant and domineering German spy masquerading as an English aristocrat in a Rolls Royce, who throws a charming young girl off a cliff and into the sea without a qualm because she wishes to steal her identity for another German agent. The film is set in the Orkney Islands (good location footage there), and the German agent is meant to impersonate the new schoolmistress at Long Hope in order to spy upon the British Fleet at anchor in Scapa Flow. Veidt arrives by submarine to link up with her at her schoolhouse. One extraordinary feature of the story is that he brings a motorcycle with him in his submarine and lands it on the Orkneys in order to convince people that he must be a local, as how could anyone who was not a local and had arrived by submarine possibly have a motorcycle. What an amusing touch! It must be the first time in fiction or history that anyone ever transported his motorcycle underwater to an espionage rendezvous. (Or do US Navy Seals and British SAS do this all the time, one wonders. After all, a motorcycle could be useful in getting from one end of a submarine to anther quickly, couldn't it? I mean, if one wanted to countermand an order or just have a sandwich.) But the German agent who was meant to be the schoolmistress has herself been supplanted by Valerie Hobson, who just happens to speak perfect German. (She seems really to do this, so perhaps Valerie Hobson was actually a plant all along for her entire film career, secretly working for Hitler, which is why she married a British cabinet minister? That is a joke, folks, please do not sue.) Here Valerie Hobson is married to a British naval officer who pretends to be betraying his country but is not really doing so. The film is really very good indeed and also shows us what stuffed-shirts the local Scots were back then. I remember being stuck in Edinburgh on a Sunday long ago and being astonished to discover that all the cinemas and pubs were closed because it was 'the Lord's Day of Rest', and enjoying oneself was thought to be sinful. At the risk of being controversial, might I suggest that the true origins of the Taliban may lie deep within the recesses of the Scottish Kirk? And another thing, while I am on the subject of Scotland: they eat the most disgusting thing in the world, which is called 'white pudding'. I would rather eat a bowl of sheep's eyes any day than face another Scottish 'white pudding'. I won't try to describe it, but I leave its horrors to the imaginations of all fortunate enough never to have encountered one.

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