Their’s is one of the most treasured and historic film partnerships of all time, as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (forever remembered as “The Archers”) collaborated to make many films together during their illustrious careers. A large number of these films are still considered to be some of the finest ever created, such as “49th Parallel” aka “The Invaders” in America (1941), “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943), “A Canterbury Tale” (1944), “I Know Where I’m Going” (1945), “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946), “Black Narcissus” (1947) and “The Red Shoes” (1948). Before they could be brilliant, however, they had to meet, work and thrive together on a smaller scale. And that brings us to the 1939 WWI film, “The Spy in Black.”
Based on the novel written by J. Storer Couston, and published in 1917, “The Spy in Black” (released in the United States as “U-Boat 29”) tells the story of a German U-Boat Captain (Conrad Veidt), who during WWI is sent on a secret mission in the Orkney Islands near Hoy. His top-secret mission involves navigating his U-boat through the mine field, and then traveling by motorcycle to a small schoolhouse. There he will make contact with an agent posing as a schoolteacher (Valerie Hobson). She will then connect him to a disgruntled British Lieutenant (Sebastian Shaw), who is actually a traitor sent to reveal the location of the British Fleet for the German U-Boat to destroy. With a mission as secret as this, there’s no telling who you should trust, and it is certain that everyone’s plans will fall apart.
The Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 was original set up to enhance the British film industry. The idea was to require British theaters to show a certain percentage of British films each year, thus increasing the number of British movies that would be made. Unfortunately, that didn’t exactly happen. Low-cost, poor-quality films were mass-produced in order to meet these demands, and because of the disappointing overall quality, they soon became known as “quota quickies.” The majority of these films are easily forgettable, but “The Spy in Black” is an exception.
Yes, this film has a cheaper feel, but despite the lack of high-quality production value, this film rises above itself to become more. The story helps, with its interesting basic plot- enhanced by twists and turns around every corner. The acting is decently acceptable, especially Conrad Veidt, who play the part with an inspiring combination of sympathy and patriotism. Why is that impressive? Because he’s a German Captain attempting to slyly take down an entire fleet single-handedly. It’s not easy to create sympathy from that type of character, yet somehow he does.
The real beauty of the film, however, lays in the direction. Here you have an 82 minute spy film with twists and confusion everywhere, but the story doesn’t alienate the audience. It flows well, keeping everything easy to follow. The downfall of many espionage films is that they are either too complex- losing the audience in the confusion, or they are too simple- becoming predictable or boring. “The Spy in Black” avoids this pitfall because Michael Powell, even at this early stage in his career, was a better director than most. He simplifies without losing any heart, and he takes the basic raw materials he has been given and creates a film that is both entertaining and believable.
Is this as good as the later Archer films? Certainly not, but they had to start somewhere, and when a beginning works this well, it’s no wonder their careers soared so high.