Self and Other III

film 2 of 3

The Spy in Black

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 18, 2015

Thrilling, not just because of its effective generic/genre qualities, but because there’s such life and feeling beyond the form. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s first film together strikingly resembles Jean Renoir’s much more celebrated pacifist milestone, Grand Illusion. That seems obvious, but it’s less obvious that the similarity is as much a matter of shared sensibility as any borrowing. These filmmakers are their own men, right from the start.  

This is where Powell and Pressburger/the Archers introduce the bold thing for which they would later become so controversial, and then so famous and admired. In this British film, released in August of 1939 (!), protagonist/star Conrad Veidt is a German spy, from the story’s beginning all the way to its shattering close. The WWI setting of the plot won’t have fooled contemporary British audiences, over whom the storm clouds of impending war were so forebodingly gathered. That’s why P & P’s sympathy for their protagonist is so striking, so shocking even  It is established right at the start, clearly and without apology. In an elegant opening, set in a German restaurant, this sympathy is also extended to any number of sharply sketched peripheral characters—also German. Winston Churchill would later say of the Archers’ similarly sympathetic The Life and Death of Col. Blimp that such film fraternizing was bad for British morale. This is an interesting point, and probably worthy of consideration. But as also demonstrated by, say, Humphrey Jennings, this sympathy is the very stuff of civilization, which is always more stirring when it’s affirmed in the midst of assault. 

What is also remarkable is the fact that, unlike Renoir’s piece, this is not remotely an art film. This is a commercial product pure and simple. Notwithstanding that fact, and in spite of commercial film’s usual preference for clarity, which is so often sought at the expense of subtlety, or even human reality, The Spy in Black wants to be thrilling and thoughtful both. And decent as well. The film only has one dishonourable character, and it turns out that he was necessarily shamming the whole time, and isn’t dishonourable after all. Combatants/stars Veidt and Valerie Hobson develop and maintain true feelings for each other. These are honourably and sadly and properly not acted upon for a number of reasons that bear on the complexity both of the plot and of life.

Also, unlike Renoir’s film, TSIB is not really pacifist at all. At least it’s not just uninterrogated peacenikery. The reasons for war are hinted at, as is the importance of honour and duty and other such combative and dangerous qualities. It’s even better then that the cost is counted and the toll is taken. The cruelty of it all, and the kindness that can still survive in cruel times, are extraordinarily concentrated in a beautifully judged climactic moment. The German Captain has captured the little British craft (please take note of the recalcitrant and resourceful Scottish engineer by the name of Scott), but it appears that he is about to lose his advantage. He is feeling betrayed, but knowing why that betrayal had to happen. He steels himself to do his duty for his nation. “Anyone disobeying orders will be shot!” A baby cries, and he says with tender sadness and unforced, sincere humanity, “with one exception.”

What follows, follows, and serves both the temporary services of propaganda and the deeper imperatives of humanity. Let’s do a compare and contrast, shall we? Fast forward a couple of years. Can you recall what Hollywood/Warner Brothers did with the extraordinarily cultured and compassionate, skillful and attractive Veidt, when they cast him in Casablanca? Draw your own conclusions…  

Bonus tweet review: Saw Powell/Pressburger’s #TheSpyinBlack. A mere quota quickie; complete craft & a stirring statement of moral purpose and ethical intent.