Spy in Black, The (1939): First Collaboration of Michael Powell and Pressburger, Spy Thriller Starring Conrad Veidt

Conrad Veidt, the German actor, is mostly known for his villainous roles, usually as a Nazi ( the 1943 Oscar winning Casablanca is a good example).

But in The Spy in Black, the 1939 film, he gets to play the lead, Captain Hardt, a WWI German U-boat commander who leads a mission attack on the British Fleet at Scapa Flow, in March 1917.

Produced by Alexander Korda, The Spy in Black represents the first collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of the most fruitful directing teams in film history, making classics such as The Red Shoes in 1948.

The tale begins when Hardt sneaks ashore on the Orkney Islands to meet his contact, Fräulein Tiel (Valerie Hobson).  She has assumed the identity of a new local schoolteacher, Miss Anne Burnett (June Duprez), who German agents had intercepted en route to the island.

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 command due to drunkenness.

The plan is almost disrupted when Burnett’s fiancé, Reverand Harris, arrives unexpectedly, but the spies take him captive. Equipped with the information he needs about the British fleet movements, Hardt arranges for U-Boats to attack.

Hardt makes advances to Tiel, but she rebuffs him. He secretly follows her, as she meets Ashington, discovering that the British are aware of his presence, and plan a trap for the U-Boats.  The Brit contacts are double agents: Ashington is RN Commander Blacklock, and “Fräulein Tiel” is Blacklock’s wife, Jill.

Disguised in Rev. Harris’s clothes, Hardt boards the island ferry, which is also carrying Jill, civilian passengers, and eight German POWs. At sea, Hardt manages to free the German prisoners and they seize the ferry. The Royal Navy pursue them, but the ferry is intercepted by Hardt’s submarine, and Hardt’s first officer decides to sink it. As the U-boat surfaces and prepares to fire, Hardt realizes it’s his own submarine. The U-boat shells the ferry, which begins to sink.  The British ships arrive, and they destroy the fleeing U-boat. In the end, Hardt chooses to go down with the ship.

The movie was released in the U.K. on August 12, 1939, merely 22 days before the country again went to war with Germany.

End Note:

TCM showed the movie on January 5, 2019.