Is a touch of classic Spy Noir down your strasse? I recently spent 80 minutes in the company of The Spy in Black, a charming 1939 flick starring Conrad Veidt. In B&W of course but beautifully shot with with a small main cast. It’s set in my #ShamstoneSpyNovel era of March, 1917: Imperial Germany has resumed unrestricted submarine warfare to tip the balance of war and Kapitan Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is the intrepid U-Boat Commander despatched to the Scottish coast.
He is ordered to acquire critical intelligence from a treacherous Commander Ashington (Sebastian Shaw), an aggrieved man following a charge due to drunkenness. The traitor is expected to provide the location of the British fleet so a decisive wolf pack attack can take place.
Hardt, once on Scottish soil, finds himself under the command of a female agent, Fräulein Tiel (Valerie Hobson) in the guise of a local school mistress. Rejecting Hardt’s advances, Tiel implies she has already sacrificed her virtues in order to turn Ashington. But as is to be expected, no-one is who or what they seem…
There are rutting-stag exchanges as former the enemy officers compete for Tiel’s affections, with Ashington conceding, ‘Ok old chap we both won last time!’ But amid the cut-glass dialogue and jousting egos there are moments of light relief, such as the ongoing schtick related to butter (no Last Tango antics), Hardt’s German uniform, an Irish Royal Marine’s musings (pre commando) and a Scottish ship’s engineer, whose despairing lines would one day be repeated Where No Man Had Gone Before.
That director Alex Korda would later go on to make the Graham Greene penned classic , The Third Man, is no surprise, but The Spy in Black was actually conceived by Roland Pertwee. Three weeks after the film’s release in 1939, WW2 would break out, in which his son, Jon, would end up a naval officer himself, crossing paths with a certain Mr Fleming.
A word about the film’s star, Conrad Veidt. Here he’s an anti-hero and was often cast as a villain but his own story is as heroic as any cinematic portrayal. He was an established star of silent films in Germany in the ‘20s and his fame and appeal successfully crossed the Atlantic to Hollywood. He made a personal and moral stand against the rising Nazi regime and escaped to Britain with his Jewish wife just in time. On his return to America, Veidt donated much of his fortune to Britain’s war effort, which included funds set aside to treat underprivileged children in the East End bomb shelters. He died in 1943 from heart failure.