The Spy in Black
|The Spy in Black
U.S. film poster
|Directed by||Michael Powell|
|Produced by||Alexander Korda
|Written by||J. Storer Clouston (novel)
Roland Pertwee (scenario)
Emeric Pressburger (screenplay)
|Music by||Miklós Rózsa|
|Edited by||Hugh Stewart|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
|12 August 1939 (UK)
5 October (NYC)
7 October (US general)
The Spy in Black is a 1939 British film, and the first collaboration between the British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They were brought together by Alexander Korda to make the World War I spy thriller by Joseph Storer Clouston into a film. Powell and Pressburger went on to make over 20 more films together.
Co-star Sebastian Shaw (Ashington/Blacklock) is best known for his cameo role as the face of Darth Vader in the original version of Return of the Jedi (although director George Lucas controversially had the 'ghostly' image of Shaw-as-Vader digitally replaced by that of Hayden Christensen in the closing scene of the 2004 DVD reissue of the film).
Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt), a World War I German U-boat commander, is ordered to lead a mission to attack the British Fleet at Scapa Flow. He sneaks ashore on the Orkney Islands to meet his contact, Frau Tiel (Valerie Hobson). Tiel has taken over the identity of local schoolteacher, Anne Burnett (June Duprez), who had been kidnapped by German agents. Hardt finds himself attracted to her, but Tiel shows no interest. The Germans are aided by a disgraced Royal Navy officer, the former Commander Ashington (Sebastian Shaw) who, according to Tiel, has agreed to aid the Germans after losing his command due to drunkenness, and Tiel implies that she has slept with Ashington to obtain his cooperation.
The plan is almost disrupted when Burnett's fiancé, Rev. Matthews, arrives unexpectedly, but the spies take him captive; there is another small complication when the local minister (who had already met Matthews) comes to the house, but Tiel manages to get them to leave. Now equipped with the crucial information he needs about the fleet movements, Hardt makes rendezvous with his submarine to arrange the attack. Returning to the house, and confident that all is going to plan, Hardt make advances to Tiel, but she rebuffs him. She leaves the house, believing she has locked Hardt in, but he gets out and secretly follows her, discovering that she has gone out to meet Ashington. Hardt overhears them talking and learns the truth - the British are fully aware of his presence and his mission, and his 'contacts' are really British double-agents - Ashington is in fact RN Commander Blacklock, and "Frau Tiel" is Blacklock's wife, Jill.
As Jill prepares to leave the island, Blacklock returns to the house to arrest Hardt, only to find he has eluded them. Disguised in Rev Matthews' clothes, Hardt manages to board the island ferry, which is also carrying Jill, a number of civilian passengers, and eight German POWs. Blacklock reports Hardt's escape to the base commander, who reveals that the British had learned of the plan because, although the real Miss Burnett had been kidnapped and then thrown into the sea by the German agents, she had luckily survived, and was rescued by a patrol boat, thus exposing the plot. At sea. Hardt manages to free the German prisoners and they seize the ferry. The Royal Navy pursue them, but before they can catch up, the ferry is intercepted by Hardt's submarine, and Hardt's first officer (Marius Goring) decides to sink it. As it surfaces and prepares to fire, Hardt realises it is his own U-boat, and he frantically attempts to signal them, but he is too late - the u-boat shells the ferry, which begins to sink. By this time the British ships have arrived, and they drop depth charges, destroying the fleeing U-boat. As Jill, the other passengers and the crew abandon the sinking ferry, Hardt realises all is lost, and he goes down with the ship.
- Conrad Veidt as Capt. Hardt
- Sebastian Shaw as Lt. Ashington/Cmdr. David Blacklock
- Valerie Hobson as Frau Tiel (schoolmistress)/Jill Blacklock
- Marius Goring as Lt. Schuster
- June Duprez as Miss Anne Burnett
- Athole Stewart as Rev. Hector Matthews
- Agnes Lauchlan as Mrs. Matthews
- Helen Haye as Mrs. Sedley
- Cyril Raymond as Rev. John Harris
- George Summers as Capt. Walter Ratter (ferry captain)
- Hay Petrie as James, the Ferry Engineer
- Grant Sutherland as Bob Bratt
- Robert Rendel as Admiral
- Mary Morris as Edwards, the Chauffeuse
- Margaret Moffatt as Kate
- Kenneth Warrington as Cmdr. Denis
- Torin Thatcher as Submarine officer
- Cast notes
- Bernard Miles has a small uncredited part as Hans, the hotel receptionist.
- Graham Stark has an uncredited part as a bellboy.
- Skelton Knaggs has a small uncredited part as the German sailor looking for Capt. Hardt.
Irving Asher, the producer of The Spy in Black, was the head of British production for Columbia Pictures, and the film was made as a "quota quickie", films made by the British units of American studios in order to fulfill a requirement of the British government that British cinemas show a certain amount of British product. Early in his career, director Michael Powell made quite a few of these films.
The Spy in Black was filmed at Denham Studios, with location shooting at Northchurch Common in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire and in Orkney, Scotland. The film wrapped production on 24 December 1938 and was released in the U.K. on 12 August 1939. Its American premiere was held in New York City on 5 October of that year, and it went into general release two days later.
Awards and honors
- The Spy in Black at the Internet Movie Database
- U-Boat 29 at the TCM Movie Database
- The Spy in Black at AllMovie
- The Spy in Black reviews and articles at the Powell & Pressburger Pages
- The Spy in Black at the British Film Institute's Screenonline. Full synopsis and film stills (and clips viewable from UK libraries).