The Spy in Black (Michael Powell, 1939)

The Spy in Black
Lurking on our set-top box for several months, this little gem was marked out for attention as it was the first collaboration between two of the most celebrated and original filmmakers in movie history, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who wrote the script).

Released in 1939, though filmed in 1938, it’s actually set in the First World War, after the Battle of Jutland, when German submarines were first attacking British shipping and is, not for the last time in Powell & Pressburger’s film career, but still rather daringly, mostly told from a (sympathetic) German naval officer’s viewpoint. This officer, Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is shown as dedicated, competent, cultured and thoughtful, though he is, we are frequently reminded, the enemy. He is sent to the Orkneys to rendezvous with another agent and, somehow, to destroy the British fleet there. His contact, and commanding officer, is the schoolmistress (Valerie Hobson), who has taken the place of the sweet young woman newly recruited to the job. Known by no-on in Orkney, she is easily replaceable by the spy. We see the replacement early on and, in its brutality, we are reminded that the spies are playing a very dangerous game.

The ‘Schoolmistress’ arranges a meeting between Hardt and a disgruntled British Naval officer, who has been blamed for losing his ship (an incident of which Hardt is aware) due to his apparently never-ending descent into alcoholism. Not only is he embittered, he is also infatuated with the Schoolmistress and she teases both him and Hardt with the promise of her sexuality. As the locals make their new schoolmistress welcome, the spies prepare to execute their plans.

This film is not in the league of later Powell and Pressburger, but few films aare. It’s still enjoyable, and an interesting bit of British film history.


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