The Spy in Black

UK 1939, 83 mins
Director: Michael Powell

For his first project at Alexander Korda’s London Films, Michael Powell was introduced to young Hungarian screenwriter Emeric Pressburger for this World War I drama. The pairing was a propitious one – The Spy in Black was a hit both here and in the US (under the name U-Boat 29), and one of the most successful partnerships in British cinema was born.

Released on the eve of World War II in August 1939, The Spy in Black makes an interesting contrast with the later 49th Parallel (1941), made as an unambiguous propaganda film. Although both feature a U-boat commander as a villain, Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is a very different character to his counterpart in 49th Parallel, Lieut. Hirth (Eric Portman). The film goes to some lengths to humanise him in the early part of the film, showing his easy friendship with his colleague Schuster (Marius Goring), and he is altogether a more honourable German.

Filmed in the Orkneys, The Spy in Black marked Powell’s second visit to the Scottish islands, following his breakthrough film The Edge of the World (1937). He was already completely in love with their bleak beauty, and he was back again a few years later to film ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ (1945).

By now, Powell was almost a veteran – Spy was his 26th film as director – but this was his first major project, and the light touch and confidence he displayed is surprising. Notably, the minor characters are rounded, believable and treated with respect, quite different from the crude caricatures common in British films of the period, and a step forward from the more stereotyped Welsh villagers in Powell’s earlier The Phantom Light (1935).

In one particularly impressive sequence, in which Hardt makes his way past patrolling guards to establish contact with the ‘schoolmistress’ who he believes to be his ally, Powell showed a rare ability to blend humour and suspense, a gift most commonly associated with Hitchcock, whose position as undisputed master of British cinema was now vacant following his departure for Hollywood.

The starstruck Powell and Pressburger were thrilled to be working with a hero of the German cinema, Conrad Veidt, star of the expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). A strong cast also included Valerie Hobson, June Duprez and Marius Goring; all would work with Powell again.
Mark Duguid, BFI Screenonline

A contemporary review
This intricate story is gripping from beginning to end, and very skilfully directed. It has abundance of thrilling incidents, effective suspense values, and spectacular sea-scenes. The climax is grim but logical. The acting is outstandingly good. Conrad Veidt is brilliant in the lead. He is throughout a tragic if slightly sinister figure, and wins respect and sympathy as a patriot with the qualities most admirable and admired in soldier, sailor, or airman of any nationality – loyalty, courage, obedience, and steadfast endurance. Valerie Hobson is delightful as the schoolmistress showing resource and humour. The remaining players are all excellent in their different ways. The technical qualities are very good indeed. The atmosphere is realistic and convincing, the photography noteworthy. Pictures of Scapa Flow, of the Orkney Islands, and of the Fleet are particularly effective.
Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1939

Directed by: Michael Powell
Production Company: Embankment Fellowship Centre
Producer: R.M Lloyd *
[Story] By: Major Lloyd
Photographed by: Bernard Browne

Ralph Richardson (John Smith)
Flora Robson (Mary Smith)
Wally Patch (Harry Jones)
Allan Jeayes (employer)

UK 1939
10 mins

Directed by: Michael Powell
Production Company: Harefield Productions
Presented by: Alexander Korda
Produced by: Irving Asher
Assistant Director: Pat Jenkins *
Screen Play by: Emeric Pressburger
Scenario by: Roland Pertwee
Based on a story by: J. Storer Clouston
Photographed by: Bernard Browne
Camera Assistant: Gerry Massey-Collier *
Supervising Film Editor: William Hornbeck
Film Editor: Hugh Stewart
Assistant Editor: John Guthrie *
Art Director: Frederick Pusey
Supervising Art Director: Vincent Korda
Music Composed by: Miklos Rozsa
Musical Director: Muir Mathieson
Sound Director: A.W. Watkins
Sound Assistant: John W. Mitchell *
Sound System: Western Electric Mirrophonic Recording

Conrad Veidt (Captain Hardt)
Sebastian Shaw (Lieutenant Ashington)
Valerie Hobson (the school mistress)
Marius Goring (Lieutenant Felix Schuster)
June Duprez (Anne Burnett)
Athole Stewart (The Rev Hector Matthews)
Agnes Laughlan (Mrs Matthews)
Helen Haye (Mrs Sedley)
Cyril Raymond (The Rev John Harris)
George Summers (Captain Walter Ratter)
Hay Petrie (James, the ship’s engineer)
Grant Sutherland (Bob Bratt)
Robert Rendel (admiral)
Mary Morris (chauffeuse)
Margaret Moffatt (Kate)
Kenneth Warrington (Commander Denis)
Torin Thatcher (submarine officer)
Bernard Miles (Hans, hotel receptionist)
Esma Cannon (Maggie) *
Skelton Knaggs (German orderly) *
Jack Lambert (passport official) *
Brian Herbert (corporal guarding POWs) *
Graham Stark (pageboy) *

UK 1939
83 mins


The screening on Sun 29 Oct will be introduced by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator

Rynox + Hotel Splendide
Mon 16 Oct 18:10; Fri 10 Nov 18:10
A Matter of Life and Death
Mon 16 Oct 20:45 (+ intro by Thelma Schoonmaker and Kevin Macdonald); Sun 29 Oct 12:10; Sat 4 Nov 15:00; Tue 7 Nov 18:10 (+ intro by academic Lucy Bolton); Sun 19 Nov 18:30
Farewell (Abschied)
Tue 17 Oct 18:40 (+ intro by filmmaker Kevin Macdonald); Wed 1 Nov 20:40
His Lordship
Tue 17 Oct 20:50; Sat 4 Nov 12:20
The Fire Raisers
Wed 18 Oct 18:40; Sat 11 Nov 12:30
Black Narcissus
Wed 18 Oct 20:50; Sun 22 Oct 18:30; Wed 8 Nov 18:15; Sun 12 Nov 18:50; Thu 16 Nov 20:50; Sat 18 Nov 20:50; Mon 20 Nov 20:45 (+ intro by author Mahesh Rao)
The Edge of the World + Return to the Edge of the World
Fri 20 Oct 18:20; Wed 8 Nov 20:30; Wed 15 Nov 20:50
The Thief of Bagdad: An Arabian Fantasy in Technicolor (aka The Thief of Bagdad)
Fri 20 Oct 20:30; Tue 24 Oct 14:40; Sat 28 Oct 15:00; Sun 26 Nov 12:00
The Spy in Black + Smith
Sat 21 Oct 15:30; Sun 29 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
The Boy Who Turned Yellow + Heavenly Puss
Sun 22 Oct 12:00
49th Parallel
Sun 22 Oct 12:20; Mon 6 Nov 20:30
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing!
Sun 22 Oct 15:10; Tue 31 Oct 20:40 (+ intro by film historian Ian Christie)
Mon 23 Oct 17:50 (+ intro by Miranda Gower-Qian, BFI Inclusion Lead); Mon 30 Oct 20:30
Red Ensign + The Night of the Party
Tue 24 Oct 20:30; Sun 5 Nov 14:40
A Canterbury Tale
Wed 25 Oct 20:20 (+ intro by academic Thirza Wakefield); Sat 11 Nov 14:50; Fri 24 Nov 20:35
Library Talk: The interior life of an archive: an evening with the Michael Powell Collection
Mon 27 Nov 18:00
The Elusive Pimpernel
Sat 28 Oct 12:20; Mon 13 Nov 18:00 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
Gone to Earth
Sat 28 Oct 18:20; Wed 22 Nov 20:45; Sat 25 Nov 17:50
Silent Cinema: The Magician + The Riviera Revels + intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator
Sun 29 Oct 15:00
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Sun 29 Oct 17:20 (+ intro by Kevin and Andrew Macdonald); Sun 5 Nov 17:45; Thu 23 Nov 17:45; Sun 26 Nov 14:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by Stephen Fry)
Paths to Partnership: Powell + Pressburger before The Archers
Tue 31 Oct 18:30
Projecting the Archive: The Queen’s Guards + intro by Josephine Botting, BFI National Archive Curator
Thu 2 Nov 18:20
Twice upon a Time
Mon 6 Nov 18:10 + extended intro by James Bell, BFI National Archive Senior Curator
Talk: Philosophical Screens: A Matter of Life and Death
Tue 7 Nov 20:20
Talk: Centre Stage: The Leading Women of Powell + Pressburger
Thu 16 Nov 18:20
Ill Met by Moonlight
Fri 17 Nov 20:40; Sat 25 Nov 12:40
The Battle of the River Plate
Sat 18 Nov 18:20; Mon 27 Nov 20:30
Behold a Pale Horse
Sun 19 Nov 11:50 Wed 22 Nov 17:50
The Wild Heart
Sun 19 Nov 15:10
Miracle in Soho
Mon 20 Nov 18:10; Sun 26 Nov 18:30

Course: The Magic of Powell + Pressburger
Wed 25 Oct to Wed 22 Nov 18:30

With thanks to

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email