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I first saw this movie on Derby Day 1939 at the then Capitol Cinema in Epsom Surrey UK when I had intended to watch the world famous horse race to be run that day on the nearby Epsom Downs. However, the weather was so wet and windy that I decided to go to a cinema instead. Having just watched the film on television I find that it thrilled me just as much as an octogenarian as it did when I was a teenager in 1939. In my view this is one of the finest of the 1930s British films. The fine quality of the direction and the talent of the principal actors and supporting cast make this a memorable piece of fiction which accurately reflects the narrow attitudes to manners that prevailed in remote parts of Scotland during the time of the first world war.
Just wanted to second the other user's comment.
I saw this last night as part of a Michael Powell/Emeric Pressberger retrospective underway at the American Cinemetheque. There are some unlikely aspects to the plot, but on the whole this is well crafted WWI thriller with a remarkable level of moral complexity, especially given that it was made and released just as England was entering a second war against Germany.
The protagonist (hero?) (played by the extraordinary Conrad Veidt) is a German officer on a spy mission and he is, in many respects, a quite admirable character. For the first half of the film, it's almost entirely from his point of view. It's hard to imagine Hollywood filmmakers EVER having the confidence that Powell and Pressberger clearly had in the intelligence of their audience, allowing them to actually like and admire an enemy agent.
While "The Spy in Black" eventually does come down squarely on the side of the English, the agents of the Kaiser come off only as perhaps a hair more ruthless than those fighting for king and country.
Of course, the Germany that England would be fighting within a few a few months would be far, far worse. This film is a potent reminder that while World War II might have a morally clear "good" war because of the vast evil of the Nazis, World War I was a horse of a far grayer color.
With sophisticated, occasionally black humor, this is a neat bit of old-fashioned movie entertainment with some genuinely intriguing differences. Enthusaistically recommended.
This is an entertaining, well-made spy adventure set during World War I.
Although made 60 years ago, the film has a sophisticated approach to the
relationship between its three main characters. In particular, the natural
attraction between the parts played by Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson is
portrayed believably. Many of the supporting characters are also
interesting; look out for Hay Petrie as the Scottish engineer aboard a ferry
and an early appearance by Bernard Miles as a hotel desk clerk. Unlike the
majority of British movies of this period, the film doesn't stereotype or
make fun of its working-class characters.
The story has several good twists and an ironic climax. There are also some improbable coincidences, but no more than the typical James Bond movie.
Unlike Bond, however, "The Spy in Black" adopts a quite dark tone in its final 20 minutes. There is an almost tragic dignity and regret in the final scenes.
Director Michael Powell composes some interestingly-framed shots that make good use of Vincent Korda's sets. One of his favourite devices is to set a key character in sharp focus in the background while lesser parts stand or move slightly out-of-focus in the foreground. The effect is often quite striking.
This film marks Powell's first collaboration with the Hungarian writer Emeric Pressburger. The maturity of the romance between the leads and the snappiness of the dialogue are probably attributable to Pressburger's European upbringing.
Despite its age, "The Spy in Black" is well worth seeing just for the simple pleasures of a well-made entertainment executed with a little more care and imagination than usual.
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.
A deceptively and beautifully simple little film, a great start for the
Powell and Pressburger collaboration, and good British propaganda fun
too. Much too simple for most people today who would miss colour,
violence, depravity, unfathomable plot and shaky camera work in their
Austere devilishly handsome German U Boat captain Conrad Veidt has convoluted spying mission in 1917 Scotland to locate the British fleet but finds himself being sidetracked with schoolmistress contact Valerie Hobson and the availability of butter. But even though WW1 is portrayed as more "civilised" than the coming war as in Colonel Blimp, oil and water must always remain just so. There's a fine cast of British stalwarts for example the seemingly legless Hay Petrie, some eccentric most with secrets, and high production values generally disguising occasionally flimsy sets and occasional implausibility. Rosza's music was high class too, nicely complementing the nitrate black and white film stock, which unfortunately has been allowed to deteriorate over the years but sometimes unintentionally lets you believe it really is 1917 and not 1939. As with Colonel Blimp 4 years later the German viewpoint with a sympathetic lead is told with a seeming impartiality, but after all there wasn't any doubt about the outcome. Even Chamberlain might've been hard to appease if Veidt's plans had been shown to bear fruit!
Throwaway - so why can't I throw it away? Entertaining, engrossing, amusing, nothing very heavy and even on the verge of war not a big flag-waver, so it's just the type of film I enjoy.
This excellent birth of "The Archers" just managed its London premiere
the very week WWII was declared in Britain and all places of
entertainment were ordered to close,albeit temporarily. Second of all
Veidt was and is my favourite actor,having seen all but some rare
silents from "Caligari" onwards. He was the definitive popular German
swine(Eric Von,notwithstanding)although he did play many other parts -
Jew Suss/Under The Red Robe,a mediaeval swashbuckler, the mysterious
stranger in "Passing of the 3rd Floor,Back" or the aviator in
"FP1"(English version). Shortly after fleeing the Nazis (whom he
loathed) in the 30s he gladly set up a home near Korda's famous Denham
studios and was a doting father to his daughter while soon becoming the
tall and cultured idol of thousands of women.
He was also a Korda favourite and this first pairing with then one of Britain's favourite glamour girls.Valerie Hobson, following her brief success with Universal,he was rushed into another naval adventure,"Contraband" equally entertaining. Like,say, Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes", this is great escapist stuff with a mystery character at the centre of the story. But one point in the movie has always bothered me - just how does one manhandle a motor cycle up the steep conning tower of a submarine? We are never shown how Veidt managed it!
By the same token, how did Erik in "Phantom of the Opera" manage to get his organ/piano into his hideout amongst the Paris sewers? After all, we see the problem he had with the small boat! Curiously, Veidt's Nazi officer in "Escape" & "Casablanca" both died in the middle of a phone call while attempting the prevent an escape.
"Spy" has its share of amusing lines & allusions. On his entry at the start he & fellow submariner get seated at a crowded fashionable hotel anticipating a slap-up meal after a long period at sea only to be told almost every dish is "off" - even for naval officers. They leave in disgust & still starved. A while later when Hardt has been secretly landed on the Orkneys with motorcycle,late at night & having avoided discovery.he meets his contact V Hobson (a British agent posing as a local teacher)at home. Entering the kitchen he stops short & stares hard,alarming her and utters the word "boota!" in some disbelief which she interprets as "no,"butter!".and as he proceeds to dig with relish into a side of ham he remarks "These English - they are so long without their food!" The time was WW1 and an ironic comment on the German shortages - but the film's settings were equally appropriate to forthcoming WW2 conditions in Britain. During the film's production all the menacing signs of 1938/1939 were there but it seemed only Churchill was convinced of the inevitable when everyone wanted to believe Chamberlain. The film's scheduled release to London's Odeon cinema did not anticipate the decisive act of Germany's invasion of Poland.
Sadly, there was a real-life similarity in both Veidt's & Bing Crosby's sudden collapse just following a game of golf. Veidt had barely turned 50 as a Warner's star and still had lots to offer.
Here, Conrad Veidt (looking lovely in this) and Valerie Hobson (a little stiff) team for the first time in an unusual war thriller cum romance which uses its locations, script, actors, and pace to great effect. Even if you don't particularly like war films, this has more going on that you'd think, and repays more than one viewing. As an early P&P it does have hints of some of the classics to come - probably a closest link to 49th Parallel. An atmospheric film which dared, on the brink of real-life war, to have a German soldier who you do sympathise with, even if he brings his misfortunes on himself.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If one really wants to get a glimmer of what Conrad Veidt's career
would have been like in American cinema but for the coming of World War
II just as he came to Hollywood, look at his British films from 1934 to
1940. In many respects his best work was done then - he had a wider
variety of roles, and was not typecast as villains as frequently as he
was in the U.S. Among the films that I'd recommend watching is THE SPY
In World War I, Veidt is the commander of a U.Boat sent to Scottish waters. He is told that there is a British naval officer who is willing to betray the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow. Veidt is shown interacting with his crew at the beginning, but he goes by life boat to the land, and meets his contact Valerie Hobson. She introduces him to Sebastian Shaw, the naval officer. Shaw seems to be drowning his anger in liquor, but he is prepared to give Veidt a naval document about a sortie by the Grand Fleet on a particular date, which would pass a narrow point the U-Boat would be stationed at. Veidt would then be in a position to sink several of the British dreadnoughts in what would be the worst disaster to strike the fleet since U-Boat Commander Weddigen sank the Hogue, Aboukir, and Cressy in September 1914.
It's too good to be true. But gradually Veidt realizes it isn't true. He's been set up, and Shaw and Hobson are trying to capture him. And the film becomes a chase - with Veidt running amongst the islanders in the Hebrides. But his conflict is that of the gentlemanly type. He will use force, if necessary, to still reach his boat and crew and try to do some damage to his enemy's ships. But he is not by nature cruel. A telling moment in the film is late in it, when he commandeers a ferry boat. He is armed and he tells the adults that he won't hesitate to use his gun if necessary. But having said that he hears the crying of a baby that one of the woman on the ferry is carrying, and his voice softens as he says that he certainly will not war against the innocent. Veidt never said anything like that in his Hollywood films - few Nazis (as he himself would have been the first to point out from private knowledge) would have hesitated in hurting an enemy's child or baby.
The film was the best that Veidt made playing an enemy officer in either world war. It ends tragically, but honorably for the man, as he decides to join his crew for the last time.
An unusual spy thriller in that the main characters are all German
spies or collaborators. THE SPY IN BLACK is set in Orkney in 1917,
where a German U-boat captain has been sent to infiltrate the locals in
respect of a planned attack. He soon develops a relationship with a
school teacher who's also working for the Germans, and the stage is set
for the forthcoming assault on the British fleet nearby.
THE SPY IN BLACK offers far more than your usual war-time thriller, and it has a very interesting plot to boot. Michael Powell handles the direction superbly, crafting a fine-looking and atmospheric little thriller on what is obviously a low budget, and the small scale somehow adds to the effect. There are plenty of twists and turns in the short running time, many of which you won't see coming, alongside a ton of drama and incident.
Headlining the cast is German actor Conrad Veidt, still packing a strong presence some 20 years after his role in THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI. The supporting performers are equally effective, especially Sebastian Shaw as the turned British officer Ashington and Valerie Hobson as the spy-turned-schoolmistress. Altogether this is a highly effective thriller and one of the best of the decade.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Spy in Black" is often regarded as the first "Archers" film,
although it was not actually described as such; Michael Powell and
Emeric Pressburger did not start to describe themselves as "The
Archers" until "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing" from 1942. It was,
however, the first film on which they worked together, with Powell
being credited as the director and Pressburger as one of the
scriptwriters. (In most of their later films, Powell and Pressburger
were to share a joint writer- producer-director credit).
Most of The Archers' early collaborations were wartime propaganda films, and "The Spy in Black" can also be regarded as such, even though it was made before the outbreak of war. (It actually opened in August 1939, a few days before the German invasion of Poland). The previous year Alfred Hitchcock had been forced to set another spy thriller, "The Lady Vanishes", in a fictitious fascist dictatorship, although it was clearly aimed at Nazi Germany. By 1939, however, it was widely recognised that war was imminent, and that there was no longer any point in British filmmakers trying to pretend that Germany was not a hostile power. "The Spy in Black" is therefore a World War I spy thriller, doubtless made with the agenda of preparing the British people for the coming conflict and reminding them that they would soon need to be on guard against German spies.
The action takes place in the Orkney Islands, a remote part of Britain but one which took on great significance in both world wars because Scapa Flow, the body of water lying between the main islands, is one of the great natural harbours of the world and served as a British naval base. (A later "Archers" film, "I Know Where I'm Going!", was also set in a remote part of Scotland, a country which Michael Powell loved). The story is set in 1917, a time when Germany was being brought close to starvation by a British naval blockade. There are numerous references in the script to the hardship which this was causing in Germany, another piece of disguised propaganda to reassure the British people that British sea power had won the First World War (partially true) and that it would win any Second World War (a prediction which was to be proved wrong by events).
After the Battle of Jutland, the German surface fleet did not dare to leave port, so Captain Hardt a German submarine commander, is ordered to lead an attack on the British Fleet. He puts ashore on the islands to make contact with a German spy, Fraulein Tiel, who is posing as the local schoolmistress. Tiel introduces him to Lieutenant Ashington, a disgraced British naval officer, who is offering to betray his country for money and to reveal vital secrets about British ship movements. There are, however, to be further developments, which leave Hardt wondering whether Tiel and Ashington are really what they claim to be.
The film is in many ways similar to an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, although the Hitchcock film with which it has most in common is not one of his British spy thrillers from the thirties, like "The 39 Steps" or "The Lady Vanishes", but rather with "Notorious", which was not to be made until 1946. Both Hardt and Ashington fall in love with the beautiful young Fraulein Tiel, leading to a love-triangle reminiscent of that between the characters played by Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains in the later film. There are two particularly fine performances from the lovely Valerie Hobson and Conrad Veidt, later to become famous for his role in "Casablanca". Although Hardt is German, he is really the central character in the film, playing a more prominent role than any of the British characters, and is many ways a sympathetic one, being played as an honourable officer and gentleman rather than a villainous thug, which is how German officers were generally portrayed in British propaganda. This sort of characterisation, however, was to become typical of Pressburger's writing; even in films written after war had broken out he never lost sight of the fact that the enemy were human, and most of his wartime films include at least one "good German" such as Theo in "Colonel Blimp".
The film contains one glaring plot hole at the end when the U-Boat surfaces to try and sink the Orkney Islands ferry; would a submarine on a vital secret mission really have given itself away in order to sink so insignificant a target, especially in an area where British warships are known to be operating? This, however, would really be my only complaint. "The Spy in Black" may have been made as a "quota quickie", films made quickly and cheaply to fulfill a government requirement that British cinemas show a minimum number of British films, but it is an exciting, well-made thriller which asks some pertinent questions about patriotism, loyalty and the moral dilemmas of war. For a "quickie" there is also some very attractive photography of the Orkney coastal scenery, shot on location. I would not rate this film quite as highly as the Archers' great war films like "49th Parallel", "Colonel Blimp" and "A Matter of Life and Death", but it certainly points the way towards them. 7/10
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