Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Spy in Black, The (1939)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Spy in Black, The (1939)
DirectorMichael Powell
Production CompanyHarefield Productions
ProducerIrving Asher
ScreenplayEmeric Pressburger
Original StoryJ. Storer Clouston
PhotographyBernard Browne

Cast: Conrad Veidt (Captain Hardt), Sebastian Shaw (Ashington), Valerie Hobson (The School Mistress), Marius Goring (Schuster), June Duprez (Anne Burnett)

Show full cast and credits

A German spy arrives in the Orkneys during the First World War.

Show full synopsis

For his first project at Alexander Korda's London Films, Michael Powell was introduced to young Hungarian screenwriter Emeric Pressburger for this World War I drama. The pairing was a propitious one - The Spy in Black was a hit both here and in the US (under the name U-Boat 29), and one of the most successful partnerships in British cinema was born.

Released on the eve of World War II in August 1939, The Spy in Black makes an interesting contrast with the later 49th Parallel (1941), made as an unambiguous propaganda film. Although both feature a U-boat commander as a villain, Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is a very different character to his counterpart in 49th Parallel, Lieut. Hirth (Eric Portman). The film goes to some lengths to humanise him in the early part of the film, showing his easy friendship with his colleague Schuster (Marius Goring), and he is altogether a more honourable German.

Filmed in the Orkneys, The Spy in Black marked Powell's second visit to the Scottish islands, following his breakthrough film Edge of the World (1937). He was already completely in love with their bleak beauty, and he was back again a few years later to film "I Know Where I'm Going!" (1945).

By now, Powell was almost a veteran - Spy was his twenty-sixth film as director - but this was his first major project, and the light touch and confidence he displayed is surprising. Notably, the minor characters are rounded, believable and treated with respect, quite different from the crude caricatures common in British films of the period, and a step forward from the more stereotyped Welsh villagers in Powell's earlier The Phantom Light (1935).

In one particularly impressive sequence, in which Hardt makes his way past patrolling guards to establish contact with the 'schoolmistress' who he believes to be his ally, Powell showed a rare ability to blend humour and suspense, a gift most commonly associated with Hitchcock, whose position as undisputed master of British cinema was now vacant following his departure for Hollywood.

The starstruck Powell and Pressburger were thrilled to be working with a hero of the German cinema, Conrad Veidt, star of the expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Der Cabinett des Dr Caligari, Germany, d. Robert Weine, 1919). A strong cast also included Valerie Hobson, June Duprez and Marius Goring; all would work with Powell again.

Mark Duguid

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)
Goring, Marius (1912-1998)
Hobson, Valerie (1917-1998)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)
Veidt, Conrad (1893-1943)
Powell and Landscape
Powell and Pressburger
Powell and Pressburger: The War Years