Monday, 11 March 2013

The Spy in Black (1939)

In 1939, Michael Powell was not a name anyone had heard of. Emeric Pressburger did not get credit as director, he was solely credited as writer. The Spy in Black is to Powell and Pressburger as Blacmail is to Alfred Hitchcock. They were both very small British films that set up great directors in their root to fame. The Spy in Black was created as a contract between the British government and the film industry  They were legally obliged to make pro-Britain films. These films were common in the beginning of Powell's career. Perhaps making pro-England films are what got him to his certain position. Therefor, this is an important film.

The Spy in Black is an incredibly hard film to find. Every print that is accessible is filled with audio problems. The print I had to watch had a 20 or so second delay in video from audio. Therefor, let us hope the film is picked up by Criterion or Kino some point soon.

Where does The Spy in Black currently stand? It has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.9 on IMDb. It is not The Archers best film in a long shot, or their most popular either. But it is a solid film.

Our story revolves around a man named Captain Hardt. He is a German submarine commander. He receives his orders one day and embarks on a travel to England where he is to make an attack. However, once he arrives there he meets a school teacher. Strangely enough, this teacher seems to know more than she should. But Hardt seems to be falling in love with her.

The Spy in Black is just filled with marvelous performances from every member of the cast. Conrad Veidt was perfectly cast in the role of Captain Hardt. He combines a somber respect for his duty with a devilish charm. Here we find Valerie Hobson in a strong performance as a female spy. She combines strength with her character along with the basic charm we have seen many times.

We have seen many film-noirs that are filled with clever twists in their writing. Although The Spy in Black is not officially a film-noir, it presumes the great plot and twists of one.

Here is an example of how budget, means nothing. Powell achieved a strong film than focused on cinematography rather than effects. Oh, and how the cinematography was excellent. This is stronger than most Powell and Pressburger films in that it demonstrates techniques that would seem foreign to them. Instead of using colour to create dream-like fun, they use black and white to create foreboding messages.

There is no fun in The Spy in Black. Not in the way that The Red Shoes is fun. This is a serious military film about undercover agents. I congratulate them on a mildly good film.

The Spy in Black,
Directed by Michael Powell
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Sebastian Shaw and Valerie Hobson
6.5/10 (C+)

1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
2. The Tales of Hoffman
3. The Spy in Black
4. I Know Where I'm Going

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