Cast & Crew
During World War I, Hardt, a German submarine captain, is sent to a secret rendezvous in the Orkney Islands near the home base of the British battle fleet. He has instructions to meet a spy there who will give him his orders. At the same time, Anne Burnett is proceeding to the islands to take a new position as schoolmistress and be near her fiancé, Reverend John Harris. On her way, she is kidnapped by German spies, and eventually a new schoolmistress appears and contacts Hardt. She gives him orders to sink the British fleet and tells him that specific instructions will be forthcoming from Lieutenant Ashington, a British traitor in the employ of the Germans. Soon after, the alcoholic Ashington arrives with a set of plans detailing the movements of the British battle cruisers. Hardt transmits these to his submarine crew, ordering them to torpedo the English fleet. Although he detests Ashington, Hardt finds himself attracted to the new spy, and consequently, when he sees her embracing Ashington, his jealousy is aroused. In actuality, the schoolmistress is Ashington's wife was pressed into emergency service as a counterspy after the true German spy was captured. When she becomes fearful of Hardt, Ashington smuggles his wife aboard the St. Magnus, a ferryboat transporting German prisoners of war. At the last moment, Hardt realizes that the girl and Ashington are actually counterspies and escapes aboard the St. Magnus. Inciting the prisoners to mutiny, Hardt commandeers the boat and tries to head off the submarine's deadly rendezvous. Hardt's own submarine, acting on his information, torpedoes the St. Magnus, and as the British destroyers shatter the submarine with depth bombs, Ashington's boat rescues all the passengers of the St. Magnus except Hardt, who goes down with the ship.
J. Storer Clouston
A. W. Watkins
The Spy in Black
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.
The Spy in Black
That medal ribbon. I don't seem to recognise it. What is it?- The Reverand John Harris
The Iron Cross... Second Class.- Captain Hardt
Second Class... then you must be a prisoner of war?- The Reverand John Harris
No.- Captain Hardt
You are.- Captain Hardt
Oh dear.- The Reverand John Harris
The password that Hardt is to use for his contact is the opening line of Heine's poem Die Lore Lei, 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.
According to contemporary reviews, this picture, released as The Spy in Black in England, was the second of Columbia's "quota acquisitions," which were produced by Irving Asher, the head of Columbia British production. It was produced just before the start of World War II, and marked the first collaboration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film appeared on the National Board of Review's "ten best" list of 1939. Modern sources add Bernard Miles to the cast. Powell and Pressburger re-teamed with Valerie Hobson in the 1939 British film Contraband which released released in the United States in 1940 as Blackout.