The Spy in Black (1939) starring Conrad Veidt, Sebastian Shaw, Valerie Hobson, Marius Goring, June Duprez, Athole Stewart, Cyril Raymond directed by Michael Powell Movie Review

The Spy in Black (1939)   3/53/53/53/53/5

Conrad Veidt as Captain Hardt in The Spy in Black (1939)

Hardt to Heart

In cinematic history "The Spy in Black" is important as it was the first collaboration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger who if you are unaware went on to give us such greats as "Black Narcissus" and "A Matter of Life and Death". But in truth "The Spy in Black" is more interesting because of what it is and when it was released, because this is a WWI spy movie with a central character being a German U-boat commander and it was released in March 1939 just 6 months before Britain entered WWII. It must have been a risk at the time because whilst "The Spy in Black" ends in an unsurprisingly patriotic manner to have a German commander as the focus and portray him as human rather than evil must have raised some eyebrows.

After 16 days at sea German U-boat commander Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) longs for some thing other than fish to eat but no sooner has he arrived at his hotel he finds himself summoned to headquarters for his next mission. That mission is to navigate a U-boat through the minefields around the Orkney Isles and then make it ashore for a rendezvous with a German spy masquerading as a head mistress. Once there Hardt learns that Ashington (Sebastian Shaw) of the British navy has turned his back on his country and is going to help with a mission to destroy 15 British destroyers surrounding the island.

Valerie Hobson in The Spy in Black (1939)

As a rule I really enjoy Powell and Pressburger movies, they always have something extra about them but with this being their first movie together that something extra is missing. Don't get me wrong as "The Spy in Black" is a good movie with an entertaining storyline which has a nice air of mystery about it which it backs up with a good second half featuring various double crosses. But it doesn't have that identifiable Powell and Pressburger elements and could have been a movie written and made by anyone.

Never the less "The Spy in Black" is entertaining and interesting because of the fact the movie mainly focuses on Captain Hardt working as a spy to blow up British ships. As I said earlier it must have been a risk to deliver a movie with a German protagonist and one not portrayed as someone evil when Britain was only months away from entering WWII. And it pays off because for the first half of the movie we sort of take Hardt to heart as he is used by his superiors for a mission he doesn't want. It also makes it a conflict when the second half arrives and the truth begins to unravel a truth which is well hidden, that is unless you have read the numerous reviews who give too much away.

The reason why this works is thanks to Conrad Veidt who manages to show a human side to Captain Hardt and gets across the aspect that whilst a German patriot serving his country he is not always comfortable with his orders. In fact all the performance including Valerie Hobson as the school mistress to Sebastian Shaw as Ashington are good but it is Veidt who commands the movie and keeps you watching.

What this all boils down to is that "The Spy in Black" is a fascinating movie but not because of it being a Powell and Pressburger movie but because of it featuring a sympathetic German protagonist and being released a few months before Britain entered WWII.

Tags: World War I