The Spy in Black (or U-Boat 29 to US audiences at the time) is primarily remembered, if at all, as the first film in which Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collaborated. The two would eventually go on to co-direct such acclaimed films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes. Perhaps The Spy in Black ought to be remembered as a little more than that. It is not a masterpiece by any means, but it is a particularly solid little war thriller that has held up quite well despite its age. I’m even tempted to call it a little Hitchcockian, so efficient and clear is its storytelling and direction.
The basic story initially appears to be a rather formulaic one about German U-boats and spies versus the British navy. However, there a few crucial twists and inversions that ensure the film retains some level of freshness even after all these years. Most surprising is that, despite the film being released on the eve of World War II and being set in World War I, it does not portray the Germans as moustache-twirlling villains. Indeed our very protagonist, Capt. Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is a German U-boat captain on a mission to sink the British navy. The film allows us to freely sympathise with him, an aspect surely helped by Veidt’s compelling performance. One of the great character actors of his generation but unsurprisingly typecast after his move away from Germany, it is lovely to see him being given centre stage in the prime of his abilities. By allowing the audience to sympathise with what would normally be considered the villain of the piece, The Spy in Black immediately becomes a much more interesting and nuanced film. It allows us to engage with some of the personal relationships between various characters, and we become much more involved in the network of double-crossings and betrayals that the film delves into.
Here, Pressburger is simply on screenwriting duties, with Powell the man with the director’s credit. However, one can immediately see Pressburger’s positive influence on Powell’s directing. Powell’s previous film, The Edge of the World was a very strong film visually, but one lacking in the storytelling department. With a much tighter screenplay, The Spy in Black becomes a much tighter film. It is a engaging, tense thriller, with plenty of moments that Alfred Hitchcock would be proud of. The visual side of the film is not as outwardly ambitious as The Edge of the World, but neither does it need to be. The stronger performances and stronger plotting make up for that.
Ultimately, The Spy in Black is a little inconsequential and slight, and that is its main flaw. Beyond just being a very solid thriller with an interesting choice of protagonist, there is little to really pick on and expound about. But hey, any fan of Powell and Pressburger certainly won’t find a bad film in this one.