The Spy in Black

The Spy in Black (US: U-Boat 29) is a 1939 British film, and the first collaboration between the British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They were brought together by Alexander Korda to make the World War I spy thriller by Joseph Storer Clouston into a film. Powell and Pressburger eventually made over 20 films during the course of their partnership.

The Spy in Black
(U-Boat 29)
U.S. film poster
Directed byMichael Powell
Produced byAlexander Korda
Irving Asher
Written byRoland Pertwee (scenario)
Emeric Pressburger (screenplay)
Based onThe Spy in Black
1917 novel
by J. Storer Clouston
StarringConrad Veidt
Valerie Hobson
Marius Goring
Sebastian Shaw
Music byMiklós Rózsa
Muir Mathieson
CinematographyBernard Browne
Edited byHugh Stewart
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
3 August 1939 (UK)
5 October (NYC)
7 October (US general)
Running time
82 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The Spy in Black stars Conrad Veidt, Valerie Hobson, and Sebastian Shaw, and also features Marius Goring and Torin Thatcher as two German submarine officers. And Grant Sutherland, who acted the role of a minister in Powell's The Edge of the World (1937), appears in this film as a Scottish air raid warden.


In March 1917, Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt), a World War I German U-boat commander, is ordered to lead a mission to attack the British Fleet at Scapa Flow, rendezvousing at the Old Man of Hoy. He sneaks ashore on the Orkney Islands to meet his contact, Fräulein Tiel (Valerie Hobson). Tiel has taken over the identity of a new local schoolteacher, Miss Anne Burnett (June Duprez), who German agents had intercepted en route to the island. Hardt finds himself attracted to her, but Tiel shows no interest. The Germans are aided by a disgraced Royal Navy officer, the former Commander Ashington (Sebastian Shaw) who, according to Tiel, has agreed to aid the Germans after losing his command due to drunkenness, and Tiel implies that she has slept with Ashington to obtain his cooperation.

The plan is almost disrupted when Burnett's fiancé, Rev. Harris, arrives unexpectedly, but the spies take him captive. Then the local minister, Matthews, and his wife (who had already met Harris) come to the house, but Tiel manages to get them to leave. Now equipped with the crucial information he needs about the British fleet movements, Hardt rendezvous with his submarine to arrange for a fleet of U-Boats to attack. Returning to the house, and confident that all is going to plan, Hardt makes advances to Tiel, but she rebuffs him. She leaves the house, believing she has locked Hardt in his room, but he gets out and secretly follows her, discovering that she has gone out to meet Ashington. Hardt overhears them talking and learns the truth: the British are fully aware of his presence, and have turned his mission into a trap for the U-Boats. Hardt's "contacts" are really British double agents – Ashington is in fact RN Commander Blacklock, and "Fräulein Tiel" is Blacklock's wife, Jill.

As Jill prepares to leave the island, Blacklock returns to the house to arrest Hardt, only to find he has eluded them. Disguised in Rev. Harris's clothes, Hardt manages to board the island ferry, which is also carrying Jill, a number of civilian passengers, and eight German POWs. Blacklock reports Hardt's escape to the base commander, who explains that the British had learned of the Germans' plan because the real Anne Burnett luckily survived the German agents' attempt to kill her by throwing her into the sea.

At sea, Hardt manages to free the German prisoners and they seize the ferry. The Royal Navy pursue them, but before they can catch up, the ferry is intercepted by Hardt's submarine, and Hardt's first officer (Marius Goring) decides to sink it. As the U-boat surfaces and prepares to fire, Hardt realises it is his own submarine. He frantically attempts to signal them, but too late – the U-boat shells the ferry, which begins to sink. By this time the British ships have arrived, and they drop depth charges, destroying the fleeing U-boat. As Jill, the other passengers and the crew abandon the sinking ferry, Hardt realises all is lost, and chooses to go down with the ship.


Cast notes


The Spy in Black was filmed at Denham Studios, with location shooting at Northchurch Common in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire and in Orkney, Scotland.[5] The film wrapped production on 24 December 1938[6] and was released in the U.K. on 12 August 1939 – 22 days before the country again went to war with Germany. Its American premiere was held in New York City on 5 October of that year, and it went into general release two days later.[7]

Awards and honours

This film was named by the National Board of Review as one of the ten best films of 1939.[8]


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