The Spy in Black
𝐃𝐢𝐫𝐞𝐜𝐭𝐨𝐫 – 𝐌𝐢𝐜𝐡𝐚𝐞𝐥 𝐏𝐨𝐰𝐞𝐥𝐥
𝐑𝐮𝐧𝐭𝐢𝐦𝐞 – 82 𝐦𝐢𝐧𝐬
𝐏𝐥𝐚𝐭𝐟𝐨𝐫𝐦 – 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐂𝐫𝐢𝐭𝐞𝐫𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐂𝐡𝐚𝐧𝐧𝐞𝐥
The first of the collaboration of Powell and Press burger, The Spy in Black is a British propaganda film only on the virtue of it being released at the same month WWII actually begins. This is one of those rare movies, taking place in WWI from a narrative standpoint, but due to its subject becomes a commentary on the war that follows as well.
The Spy in Black does an audacious thing for a movie produced in 1939, it makes us follow Captain Hardt, a German captain of a U-boat, who is ordered to meet with a sleeper agent at the island of Hoy near Gibraltar, where WWI is already underway. Right off the bat, the audience is asked to follow as well as empathize with the Germans, who were definitely on the other side of the proverbial table in regards to the British. But that is par for the course of a Michael Powell directed British film, where he tries to humanize both sides of the narrative, with Veidt’s character of Hardt showing a nobility and dignity rare in the propaganda movies of that Era.
This movie comes at the time when the spy genre hasn’t crystallized yet, so the added dose of melodrama is evident here, and yet it solidly works, along with Pressburger’s screenplay which is a tight plot with numerous twists and turns with a bait and switch I am surprised they were allowed to be restrained by the studio as long as they did throughout the movie. It also is very much ambiguous about the nature of war, while also showcasing a very strong and capable female protagonist in Fraulein Thiel, and Valerie Hobson is fantastic on showcasing the steely resolve of her character.
And amidst all of that, there are the visuals, exquisite shots which would become trademarks of the Powell and Pressburger collaboration for the next 20 years they would work together.
The final naval battle, while ending on an ironic note is definitely one of the weaker aspects of an overall surprisingly brilliant spy film. It is a spy film with naval thriller elements tacked on at the end, and it worked for this.
Disclaimer: The above review solely illustrates the views of the writer.