MIA On R1 DVD #4: The Spy In Black

The Spy In Black (Michael Powell, 1939)


 U-Boat 29 was the US release title.

This is where the Powell/Pressburger collaborations begin, in this adaptation of a Roland (uncle of Jon) Pertwee novel. It’s often thought of as a twin with Contraband which followed a year or two later: both were Powell/Pressburger jobs, both starred Conrad Veidt as the captain of a vessel, both costarred Valerie Hobson, both were espionage/suspense propaganda pieces. I gather it’s somewhat common to prefer Contraband, but I like The Spy in Black.

Powell shows great gifts for suspense – this is very much playing in the Lang/Hitchcock ballyard and he is their equal. With it’s Orkney/North Sea locations it reminds one of other double agent stories like 39 Steps and Eye of the Needle. Had circumstance found Powell making Noirs in the forties, I suspect he would have made some swell ones.

Veidt’s German U-Boat Captain performs an espionage mission, putting ashore near the British WWI North Fleet at Orkney, where he secretly works with Valerie Hobson’s undercover agent, who is posing as a schoolteacher for the local brit tots. This film has the audacity to put us in the position of spending much of the time rooting for the Germans. Not just watch them as protagonists like 49th Parallel, but actually root for them. Ooh, will that brave Captain Hardt sink the allied fleet and get the girl? Let’s hope so!

Just to put a cherry on top, there’s a Miklos Rosza score.


In my early days of consuming 30s-50s Brit flicks, I would get Valerie Hobson and June Duprez confused (yes, yes, I know – if you only had a nickel for every time you’ve heard that one). I trace that confusion to this film, which they are both in and which trades on a superficial resemblance between the two. This one is June Duprez.


Marius Goring as a German naval officer, some years from The Red Shoes.


Conrad Veidt, tremendous.


The fellow on the right is Sebastian Shaw, 44 years away from being unmasked as Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi.


This one is Valerie Hobson.


Criterion acquired a bunch of Korda/London Films titles a year or so ago. I’m hoping this was one of them, even though it’s production pedigree isn’t so straightforward as most of them. If there’s to be a R1 DVD release, that’s where I’d look first.

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