powered by AFI
Michael Powell's The Spy in Black (1939) was the follow up to his breakthrough feature The Edge of the World (1937). It was the first film under Powell's brief contract with Alexander Korda's London Films, and it was also the start of his lengthy and productive partnership with the screenwriter Emeric Pressburger. Loosely based on the 1917 novel of the same title by the noted Orkney writer J. Storer Clouston, the plot concerns Captain Ernst Hardt (Conrad Veidt), a German spy who hides out in the town of Longhope, on the Orkney island of Hoy. There Hardt attempts to gain intelligence in order to sink the British naval fleet stationed at Scapa Flow. He is helped by a female agent (Valerie Hobson) posing as a schoolteacher, and Commander Blacklock (Sebastian Shaw), a disaffected British naval officer. The film was released in August 1939 in the U.K. and October of that year in the U.S. under the title U-Boat 29.
In his autobiography entitled A Life in Movies (originally published 1986), Powell wrote that his first project with London Films was to have been a film entitled Burmese Silver, to be shot on location in Burma. Because of rising international tensions leading up to World War II and because of the project's cost, Burmese Silver was ultimately scrapped. In its place Korda offered Powell The Spy in Black, with a script already written and Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson cast in the lead roles. Powell disliked the original script, which he felt was a too-literal adaptation of the novel and full of what he called "pleasant British dialogue scenes." Much to Powell's surprise and delight, Korda brought in Emeric Pressburger, who rewrote the original script almost completely, keeping just a basic outline of the novel's plot. Among other things, Pressburger proposed giving Valerie Hobson a more substantial part by changing the novel's character of Reverend Alexander Burnett to the schoolteacher Ann Burnett. In a widely quoted comment, Powell wrote of Pressburger: "I had always dreamt of this phenomenon: a screenwriter with the heart and mind of a novelist, who would be interested in the medium of film, and who would have wonderful ideas, which I would turn into even more wonderful images, and who only used dialogue to make a joke or clarify the plot." The finished film is undeniably well-paced and benefits from the dramatic tension generated through the love triangle between the three main characters.
Powell also claimed that Conrad Veidt was originally reluctant to work with a young director like him. By this time, Veidt had not only established a major international reputation through his German films, he had already earned acclaim for roles in British films such as I Was a Spy (1933) and a British adaptation of Jew Suss (1934). (The latter was much closer to the underlying intent of the ambitious 1925 Lion Feuchtwanger novel than the notoriously anti-Semitic 1940 German version directed by Veit Harlan.) Conrad Veidt had a Jewish wife and left Germany for good in 1933, but throughout his career he was unafraid to tackle controversial material. Ultimately, Powell was able to win over Veidt by explaining his plans for the role as "a man who has a fanatical conception of his work."
In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of The Spy in Black is how it encourages audience identification with the Captain Hardt character by establishing him up front as a dedicated and not unsympathetic character, as the British film scholar Charles Barr points out. The film opens not in Orkney but in Kiel, Germany, where we see an exhausted Captain Hardt arriving in a hotel and sent off immediately to another mission. At one point, while attempting to get a meal at a restaurant he allows his companion, a junior officer, to sleep in the booth; Hardt also leaves a cigar for him on the table. As played by Veidt, the character also has considerable poise and charisma. After the success of The Spy in Black, Powell and Pressburger collaborated again with Veidt and Valerie Hobson on the low-budget thriller Contraband (1940).
Director: Michael Powell
Producer: Irving Asher
Screenplay: Emeric Pressburger, based on a story by J. Storer Clouston
Director of Photography: Bernard Browne
Film Editor: Hugh Stewart
Production Designer: Vincent Korda
Art Director: Frederick Pusey
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Conrad Veidt (Captain Ernst Hardt), Sebastian Shaw (Commander Davis Blacklock), Valerie Hobson (the schoolmistress), Marius Goring (Lieutenant Schuster), June Duprez (Anne Burnett), Athole Stewart (Reverend Hector Matthews), Agnes Lauchlan (Mrs. Matthews), Helen Haye (Ms. Sedley), Cyril Raymond (Reverend John Harris), George Summers (Captain Ratter), Hay Petrie (Engineer).
by James Steffen
Barr, Charles. "The First Four Minutes" in The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker, edited by Ian Christie and Andrew Moor, 20-35. London: BFI Publishing, 2005.
Harper, Sue. "Thinking Forward and Up: The British Films of Conrad Veidt" in The Unknown 1930s: An alternative history of the British Cinema, 1929-1939, edited by Jeffrey Richards, 121-137. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1998.
Lazar, David, editor. Michael Powell: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies: an Autobiography. London: Faber and Faber, 2000.