Based on the novel by J. Storer Clouston (Drôle de drame) and adapted by Emeric Pressburger, The Spy in Black was part of director Michael Powell's 1939 wartime diptych, and preceded The Lion Has Wings, the latter an overt propaganda effort produced just as Britain entered WWII against Nazi Germany.
Spy is set in 1917, but aide from the cars and uniforms, the film was a veiled, contemporary effort to nudge Britons into being a bit more observant while Hitler was breaking every non-aggression pact after another, and was months away from igniting WWII.
With the exception of one statement given by the heroine in the final reel (an unsubtle message to Always Be On Guard and Follow the Rules), Spy isn't really propaganda, but a thrilling WWI espionage tale with a pretty likeable anti-hero: as played by Conrad Veidt, Capt. Hardt is an articulate, refined, and patient man who follows orders but wishes the whole wartime business would quickly resolve itself so he could enjoy the simple pleasures of life: meat, beer, real butter, and a good cigar to top off a good meal.
The first third of Pressburger's screenplay completely downplays any menace by giving many crewmen some very witty lines, and portrays them as good men who happen to be in the unfortunate position of being prepped to attack Britain via the Orkney Isles. Their down-to-earth camaraderie is contrasted with some great montages of the sub diving, avoiding detection and approaching mines, and ferrying Hardt and a motorcycle to the shore under the cover of night.
When Hardt arrives and meets his contact – Frau Tiel (Valerie Hobson), an ersatz schoolteacher – Powell and Pressburger have a great deal of fun mixing the machinations of plotting the demise of the moored British fleet with sexual tension between the spies that's extremely low-keyed, but perks up every now and then via some clever moments: Hardt commenting on Tiel's stockings, and a simple dialogue sequence with Hardt and Tiel separated by the locked bottom half of a kitchen door.
When the villainy finally kicks into gear, so much effort has been made into making Hardt so likeable that we feel conflicted in the events that threaten his plan, and eventually his life, although Pressburger also went to great lengths to characterize Hardt as a German officer whose morals and code of conduct is vastly superior to the Nazi equivalents of 1939, as evidenced by his behaviour when he commandeers a vessel in the film's final reel.
Spy is a slick, zippy, kinetic thriller that's beautifully photographed and wonderfully edited. (The cutting was supervised by William Hornbeck, who was also involved with Lion Has Wings, Thief of Bagdad, and later cut American classics like Giant, and Shane.) Miklos Rozsa's score is surprisingly sparse, but enhances some suspenseful montages, and provides a theme that mixes the right dose of pulpy excitement and nationalistic heroism.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is seeing Veidt shape Hardt into a believable character without any twitches of psychosis that could easily have turned the role into a cardboard cliché. That said, Veidt's onscreen charisma is evident in every gesture, and there seems to have been a mutual agreement to limit the character's menace to very discrete actions – often conveyed through Veidt's tall stature, and those crazy eyes that made his Jaffar in Bagdad such a memorable villain.
Powell's prior experience in docu-dramas like The Edge of the World (1937) also ensures the locals speak in their natural dialect, and any humour derived from their quirky personalities doesn't demean them as island-dwelling rubes.
For fans of Bagdad, it's also worth hunting down The Spy in Black to see several cast and crewmen who would collaborate on the former soon after, which include editor Hornbeck, composer Rozsa, and actors Veidt and June Duprez (herself in a very small role). Actors Torin Thatcher, editor Hornbeck and Hugh Stewart, and cinematographer Bernard Brown would also work with Powell on Eagle Has Wings, while actors Veidt, Hobson, and Thatcher would appear in Powell and Pressburger's Contraband (1940). Marius Goring, who has a small role as a German Lieutenant, would also appear in Powell's A Matter of Life and Death (1943), and co-star in The Red Shoes (1948).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan