(1939)3Bruce EderThe background of The Spy In Black is almost as entertaining as the movie itself -- and the picture is still quite effective as a Hitchcock-ian romantic thriller. Modern viewers may well find in its mix of suspense and romance, and its emotional resonances elements that anticipate Hitchcock's Notorious (1946). The Spy In Black, completed in 1938 but held back from release for a year, stars Conrad Veidt as World War I German submarine captain Hardt, commander of the U-29. Hardt doesn't much like espionage or its sub rosa nature, preferring to meet his enemies in the open, face-to-face and ship-to-ship, on the battlefield or at sea; but he duly follows orders to take his boat to the Orkneys and contact the German agent Frau Tiel (Valerie Hobson), who has replaced the new schoolteacher in a small village, adjacent to the anchorage of the British fleet. He is conflicted by the obvious attractiveness of Frau Tiel, a dark, attractive, but intense woman -- he might detest the life and work she has chosen for herself, but he recognizes that he has found someone who is his match in dedication and determination, as well as patriotism; and even when he discovers that she is not what she appeared to be, he can't deny those attributes or their appeal to him, though they are suddenly turned against him. The two actors and director Michael Powell -- working for the first time under the banner of a major studio (London Films) with a real budget and a name cast -- make the most out of this material, and do, indeed, foreshadow aspects of the relationship between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman's characters in Hitch's Notorious, made seven years later. The result here is one of the more mature thrillers of the pre-war era, and one that continues to tease and delight audiennces eight decades later. At the time, however, among the more tangible products of the movie's virtues were hit status on both sides of the Atlantic -- The Spy In Black did well in England, opened as it was just after war broke out anew between England and Germany; but then events caught up with the movie, as a real, World War II-era U-29 torpedoed a British capital ship in the Orkneys -- within three weeks of that event, the movie was rushed into theaters in America by Columbia Pictures under the title U-Boat 29 and made a small fortune for the US distributor. Much more important was that The Spy In Black brought director Michael Powell together with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, and from that modest beginning grew a writer-director-producer partnership that would create such movies as The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I'm Going, Stairway To Heaven, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Small Back Room, and The Tales of Hoffmann.
The Spy In Black is the story of a German World War I submarine captain (Conrad Veidt) who is given a mission to discover British intelligence secrets. Once he arrives in the Orkney Islands, he meets up with a female schoolteacher (Valerie Hobson), who happens to be a German agent. Veidt falls in love with Hobson before discovering she's actually a double agent for the British. In America, Spy in Black was originally released under the title U-Boat 29.