SPY IN BLACK seemed a most unusual movie for it’s time. Released in October, 1939, shortly after Germany had invaded Poland(and the unofficial beginnings of World War II), the protagonist, and surprisingly sympathetic figure, is a German naval officer, one Captain Hardt(Conrad Veidt), a submarine commander on a secret mission.
Based on the novel by J. Storer Clouston, the screenplay was done by Emeric Pressberger with scenario by Roland Pertwee. It was the first collaboration by British filmmakers Pressberger and Michael Powell. brought together by Alexander Korda.
Captain Hardt, commander of U-29, is back from a long mission at sea and looking forward to a meal other than sardines. He can recount every can, every fish in each can, and wants a full blown meal the first day back. Unfortunately, in 1917, things aren’t going well for Germany. With many cutbacks, this day is meatless day in all restaurants(and they are out of potatoes as well).
Hardt soon receives a new mission. He doesn’t know what as his orders are sealed until at specific time at sea. All he knows is that a motorcycle and civilian clothes accompany them.
At the appointed time, he leans he’s to be inserted into the Orkney Islands to spy on the British fleet and get movements with the idea that the U-boat force would be there when they move out to sink as many as possible and strike a blow for country. He’s to make contact with a female agent sent in, posing as the new school teacher,(Frau Tiel(Valerie Hobson) for the families of the British navy, unknown to anyone in the islands. She’d intercepted the original teacher, Anne Burnett, and tossed the body off a cliff and had been cultivating a dissatisfied British officer, a man who drank too much and had been demoted for a wrong order that damaged a ship. There are maps that will get them through the minefields that Germany had laid down around the islands.
He slips in at night and meets the woman, who has a house near the base where he can watch Fleet movements with binoculars. One of the first things the two do is gorge on meat and butter, devouring a ham in short order. Hardt is a prideful man and insists on wearing his uniform in the home. “If I’m going to be shot, it will be as a German officer, not a spy!” With that in mind, he has to stay out of sight when visitors come. He meets the traitorous British officer, Lt. Ashington(Sebastian Shaw) and they begin their mission. Ashington promises he will get ship movements in a timely enough manner to get word out to the U-boat force waiting out there.
The original teacher’s fiance makes a surprise visit, the Reverend John Harris(Cyril Raymond). He seems a bit of a fuddy-duddy and doesn’t recognize Hardt’s uniform. He does think the medal ribbon he wears looks a bit unusual, doesn’t know it. “It’s The Iron Cross…Second class.” Hardt informs him. “Then you must be a prisoner of war?” Drawing a Luger from under his jacket, Hardt says, “No…you are!” “Oh dear!”
Things are not as they seem though. It’s all a set-up. Ashington and Frau Kiel are really Commander David and Jill Blaylock, a married couple. That school teacher had lived long enough to be picked up by a ship and tell who she was. The female agent had been intercepted and the couple inserted in the place of the other two. The plan is to let Hardt get his information out, then arrest him. The U-boat force would be the one set-up instead.
Hardt overhears them talking when they thought he was in his room. He’d begun to have feelings for “Frau Tiel” and thought of a life with her in Kiel and had come down to see her, spotting her slipping out, following, witnessing the meeting of the couple. He hears he’s to be arrested after she’s out of the house and on a ship leaving the islands.
Hardt stays a step ahead, swapping clothes with the prisoner Reverend Harris, getting released by someone sent to get Harris out, and is gone by the time Blaylock gets there.
Aboard ship as Harris, he sees a group of German sailors brought aboard under guard and overhears that they were a U-boat crew that ran afoul of one of their own mines and were captured. Thinking fast, he slips below after the ship gets underway and manages to free the crew and they take over the ship. the civilians, mostly women and children are herded below with the ship’s crew, and Hardt orders them to remain quiet. Any noise and you will be shot. About that time, a baby cries and Hardt shows a little-heart-, “Except for one.”
Then begins a chase. British ships are chasing the civilian ship, Blaylock has figured out where Hardt is, and we see just how cutthroat even the British are. The officer in charge of the chase is willing to sink the ship, never mind the women and children, rather than let the German officer escape.
A far worse fate awaits Hardt and his comrades on U-29. They see the civilian ship and not the British fleet behind, taking a chance to sink it. Hardt is last seen going down with his ship, both of them, after getting the women and children, the crew, into life boats.
Much enjoyed this old film. Below is a clip from the movie of our two protagonists meeting:
For more overlooked films and other related stuff, check out Tood Mason over at Sweet Freedom.