Monday, 14 February 2011

The Spy in Black

Also memorable but not as convincing is The Man in Black. I do not mean Valentine Dyall from the radio but Conrad Veidt who plays a submarine Captain Hardt who is sent on a mission to gain intelligence by making contact with local agents in the Orkney Islands before making an attack on the British Fleet at Scarpa Flow. This 1939 film portrays the German Navy at their home port in the same way as British Officers rather than as Nazi controlled Germany. This is very odd.

The film has a clever device in which Valerie Hobson plays two roles as Frau Tiel the German spy who gets to the Orkney’s to take up the post of a school mistress, and as Jill Blacklock the school mistress appointed to the post. The twist in the tale will come later as Jill is kidnapped on her way to the Islands and replaced by Frau Tiel who distances herself from the local vicar and his wife who suggest she should take lodging rather than live on her own, given the nature of the community full of naval officers and ratings on shore leave. She successful passes the strict security system which is enforced before anyone is allowed to get on the mainland ferries, and also on the island and interestingly the expectation of security is that there will be spies.

The twist in the tale is that in fact Hobson is not playing the German Spy but a British Intelligence agent after the spy has been captured. She also develops feelings for the Submarine Captain who is clearly a man of honour trying to do his duty. Similarly the British Naval officer who has been passed over and is providing the Germans with the intelligence of British fleet location is in fact another intelligence officer and I cannot remember if he is the brother or husband of Valerie (as intelligence officer pretending to be spy pretending to be the school teacher). To add to potential confusion about who is what or actually not as they seem the Valerie Hobson school teacher has a fiancée who is a Vicar, and who gets permission to visit his wife to be, only to find that she is not but he cannot hide his reactions in time so he is kidnapped but manages to escape and goes off to rescue his future partner.

Veidt also escapes and on the ferry back to the mainland on which Hobson is also travelling are also German naval prisoners of war. Veidt manages to release these and together they take over the ferry. The ferry is shelled and sunk by the U Boat but the passengers escape in the life boats. Part of the British fleet is on hand to sink the submarine so they are available to pick up the passengers, Veidt and the prisoners.

The great Bernard Miles plays a German Barman and Graham Stark as a hotel bellboy. Sebastian Shaw plays the naval intelligence man and Marius Goring plays Lt Shuster, the second in command of he Submarine who we see in Germany with Veidt before the mission commences and who takes over command of the sub. The interesting and commendable aspect of this film is that is not a black and white propaganda film but shows two sets of officers trying to do their duty for their respective homelands. This was a Michael Powell directed film produced by the great Alexander Korda and with the script written by Emeric Pressburger along with Roland Pertwee and J Storer Clouston who wrote the original novel. Powell and Pressburger went on to make 20 films together. I have seen this film before in television and may have seen the original in theatre


  1. "This 1939 film portrays the German Navy at their home port in the same way as British Officers rather than as Nazi controlled Germany. This is very odd."

    Less odd if you note that the film is set in WWI, not during the Nazi period.