August 29, 2011

10 Two Early Thrillers by Michael Powell, Part 1

The Spy in Black (1939)

During the 1930s Michael Powell (1905-1990) directed more than twenty movies, most of them "quota quickies." These were hastily assembled films made to fulfill the requirements of the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, which stipulated that a certain number of films shown in British theaters be British-made, a law created to protect the domestic film industry in the face of competition from the US and the Continent. For Powell the Act was a boon because it meant that an inexperienced but enthusiastic director like himself could gain a great deal of practical filmmaking experience, including how to finish a film on schedule and on budget, in a short amount of time. In 1935 alone he completed seven pictures.

The noted producer and director Alexander Korda—he had produced or directed prestige films like The Private Life of Henry VIII, Rembrandt, and The Scarlet Pimpernel—so admired Powell's 1937 film The Edge of the World, a sensitive account of a community in the Shetland Islands forced to relocate to the mainland, shot mostly on location, that he put Powell under contract. Powell's first project for Korda was another picture set in Scotland, The Spy in Black, a star vehicle intended for Korda's contract players Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson that was stalled for lack of a good script. Also on the film was a screenwriter working for Korda, Emeric Pressburger (like Korda a Hungarian √©migr√©), whom Korda had called in to rescue the film by rewriting the screenplay. So impressed were Powell and Pressburger by each other's talent and so great was the rapport between the two men that they not only went on to work together on more than twenty additional movies, but in 1943 formed their own production company, The Archers, and from 1942 on signed their films jointly: "Written, Produced, and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger."

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

The Spy in Black, their first collaboration, is an espionage thriller very much in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock's tremendously successful spy thrillers of the 1930s. The action takes place during World War One in the Orkney Islands of northern Scotland, where the British Grand Fleet, the main fleet of the British Navy, was based during the war. Conrad Veidt plays Captain Hardt, the commander of a German U-boat who is ordered to land on a remote island in the Orkneys and rendezvous with a German spy. Their mission is to find out when the fleet will be leaving the safety of the mined harbor and put out to sea. With this information German submarines can lie in wait, attack the entire fleet, and destroy the British Navy.

When Hardt arrives, riding a motorcycle to avoid suspicion, he finds that the German spy who will be helping him is a young woman (Valerie Hobson) masquerading as the island's new schoolmistress. Providing the vital information about the fleet's departure will be a disaffected, alcoholic British naval officer (Sebastian Shaw). Hardt immediately finds himself attracted to the beautiful young spy, who clearly is also attracted to him. But she insists that they keep their relationship strictly professional, going so far as to lock him in his room at the school house at night, ostensibly to keep the cleaning woman from blundering into the room in the morning. The tension between romance and duty seems to be the main focus of the film, for the plan appears to be going so well that there is little chance of anyone finding out about it.

As might be expected in a work taking its cues from Hitchcock, the plot of the picture turns out to be far more labyrinthine than it at first appears. During the last part of the film, the pace of events rapidly escalates, culminating in an exciting chase on the high seas between Hardt, trying to escape on a hijacked passenger ferry with Hobson on board, and a pursuing British destroyer, a chase complete with moral conflict (the destroyer has orders to sink the ferry with its civilian passengers and crew) and sudden ironic reversals. Taking another cue from Hitchcock, Pressburger leavens the espionage plot with comic relief in the form of several bumbling, eccentric islanders.

In his 1986 autobiography, A Life in Movies, Powell acknowledged the film's modest nature, calling it "a little film . . . an expanded quota-quickie." Powell's characteristic commitment to quality and detail, however, pushed The Spy in Black beyond the limitations of the material and the scale of production he was working with. Knowing that the picture's budget precluded a second unit crew, Powell took three colleagues who had worked with him on The Edge of the World on a surreptitious three-day trip to the Orkneys. Even though the rest of the movie was made at Korda's studio in Denham, west of London, the footage they shot in the Orkneys, skillfully interpolated into the studio footage as establishing shots and matte shots, adds a real feeling of authenticity to the finished picture. Powell also pressed the film's young cinematographer to achieve atmospheric effects with lighting, with the placement and framing of actors within the decor, and with the use of close-ups—all in emulation of the style of German Expressionism. Most important, he used the film as a showcase for Conrad Veidt, an actor he clearly was in awe of—he calls him a "great actor" and "legendary personality"—but whose talent he felt had not been properly used in the pictures Veidt had made in Britain since leaving Germany in 1933. Powell emphasizes Veidt's imposing physique and facial features to bring out what he describes as Veidt's "overpowering" screen presence, making his character and his performance the centerpiece of the film. Veidt does a remarkable job with his ambiguous character, making a person we should look upon as an enemy in many ways sympathetic—intelligent, charming, and rather dashing.

If The Spy in Black falls short of Hitchcock's best films of this type, and if it doesn't reach the exalted heights Powell and Pressburger would later achieve with their masterpieces of the 1940s, it's still a good, entertaining genre movie. Although the picture is set during World War One, audiences of the time would surely have recognized its topical relevance, for by the time of the film's release in the UK in mid-August 1939, it was clear that military conflict with Germany was unavoidable. Indeed, less than a month later Britain and Germany were at war.

Next week I'll be writing on Contraband (1940), Powell and Pressburger's follow-up to The Spy in Black.


  1. Veidt's roles in his British films were much more sympathetic than in his American ones; I think Hollywood, in spite of giving him plenty of work, never appreciated his great talent. I haven't seen this particular film but will look it up - thanks for such an informative and entertaining review!

  2. GOM, aside from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," before this I knew Veidt largely from his American films. TCM has shown a 1935 British film called "Dark Journey," which has a plot in some ways similar to "Spy." But I found it rather flat in comparison to "Spy," and the film really belongs to his young costar, Vivien Leigh. After he came to Hollywood, Veidt seemed to get typecast playing duplicitous Nazis. Maybe that was just Warner Bros., who tended to typecast actors in this way, or maybe it was his age--by this time he was in his late forties. Paul Henreid, an actor of clearly more limited talent, seemed to get the roles as the good German at Warners. The film I'm writing on next week gave Veidt an even greater opportunity to show his range.

    Michael Powell is in my directors' pantheon, so it was a real treat to see these two early films of his at last, courtesy of the great Turner Classics channel, who just honored Veidt by featuring him on their Summer Under the Stars.

  3. I missed this one when it aired on TCM last week. I didn't miss all of Veidt's films, though. One I hadn't seen for a long time was "A Woman's Face." For once, Joan Crawford was relatively understated (and very good), but Conrad Veidt was breathtaking. A scene that particularly struck me was his first meeting with the disfigured Crawford. He played his character's cunning charm with such delicacy that he became momentarily sympathetic.

    You've convinced me that I have to see "The Spy in Black" - Powell/Pressburger, Veidt and Valerie Hobson. Very sorry I didn't record it.

    Thanks for a most interesting review and background on the origins of The Archers.

  4. Eve, I intended to record "A Woman's Face" last week but missed it. I think TCM shows it from time to time and I'll be sure to catch it the next time it comes around. George Cukor can be heavy-handed with melodrama, so I'm interested in seeing how he acquits himself here. I've read that Crawford got the part after Garbo turned it down. I watched "The Spy in Black" and "Contraband" because I'm such an admirer of Michael Powell. Finding out how good Veidt was was an unancticipated bonus. If I'd been fully aware of him, I would have made a point of watching more of the Veidt films TCM showed.

  5. R.D. - Interesting - I had the same reaction after seeing Veidt in "A Woman's Face" - I realized I hadn't known how good he really was and wished I'd watched/recorded more of his films. I somehow missed that Michael Powell directed "The Spy in Black" and "Contraband" - had I noticed, I wouldn't have missed them.

  6. "As might be expected in a work taking its cues from Hitchcock, the plot of the picture turns out to be far more labyrinthine than it at first appears."

    R.D. This is a spirited review of early Powell that never really did much for me, but you've sagely outlined the groundwork for such an opinion to fester. But I would certainly meet you half way and admit it does have it's moments, it's tensions, it's stylistic underpinnings. But for me it's the weakest of the P & P films. But this is extremely rare for this iconic duo. I do love the Hitchcock films that broach teh same kind of material from this period. Again you have penned an engaging and authoritative piece, and have no doubt convinced more than a few to check this one out.

  7. Sam, I'd agree that "The Spy in Black" is of more interest to fans of Powell & Pressburger and the similar (but generally more stylish) Hitchcock films of the 30s than to the general viewer. The great P&P films permitted--or perhaps inspired--them to innovate and stretch in ways that were just not possible in "Spy" given its budget and genre constraints. Still, it's an interesting initial effort by a team that was clearly getting used to working with each other but was destined for greatness within just a few years.

  8. Count me in as another who missed taping "The Spy in Black", especially regretful after reading this piece. Hopefully, TCM will re-run it.

    My favorite Conrad Veidt performance is in "The Thief of Bagdad". His Jaffar is one of the screen's great villainous portrayals. I know Michael Powell is one of the three credited directors on that film, but don't know which parts he was responsible for.

  9. Kevin, I've just reached the point in Powell's autobiography where he discusses "The Thief of Baghdad" and the parts he directed:

    "I had three complex sequences under my command...the sequence with the arrival of the ship and the arrival of the magician...the sequence in the harbor where Sabu swims ashore...the sequence of the raid on the marketplace, and the procession of the Princess passing by on her pink elephant."

    As well as the three credited directors, the appendix lists three more uncredited directors: Zoltan Korda, William Cameron Menzies, and Alexander Korda. Powell writes that the last day he worked on the film was the day war was declared.

  10. R.D. Thank you sir. Very interesting. With all those directors on hand, it's a small miracle the film is as good as it is.