Film Review: The Spy In Black (1939)

This is what they used to call a good old “rainy afternoon” movie. It is filmed in black and white and the upper lips are so stiff that you could set out your tea and cucumber sandwiches on them.

The title is a bit of a misnomer as the “spy” in question is a U-boat captain landed secretly on a remote Scottish island who insists on retaining his German uniform precisely because he refuses to be mistaken for a spy. In espionage terms we would say that he is a scout rather than a spy. But this aspect of the film is accurate: Commander Gus Agar of the Royal Navy was seconded to SIS/MI6 in 1919 for a secret mission behind enemy lines in Russia. Agar insisted on wearing his naval uniform at all times in case he was captured because he did not want to be taken for a spy. (See the excellent book Operation Kronstadt which tells the full story.)

The real spy in this story is in many ways more interesting than the U-boat captain. She is rare in spy movies in that she is a woman, not there for decoration, but the leader of the cell, far more intelligent and ruthless than those around her. The film does illustrate some of the strengths, but also the problems of the involvement of women in deep cover espionage operations. On the one hand, people are inclined to accept her cover story at face value because she is an attractive woman. At the same time, the tensions caused by the fact that she is an attractive woman ultimately disturbs the balance of the team and leads to disaster.

The movie is interesting in that it centres around the idea of an enemy agent being landed by submarine on an enemy coast. Plus ça change. With international air travel becoming so security conscious these days, alternative methods of getting agents into foreign countries are all the rage once more. Without giving it away, the story also has one rather nice twist which anyone who has worked on an intelligence operation will recognise. This was the part that was most reminiscent of the real work.

All in all, this movie is highly recommended. It is a broadly accurate picture of the way a secret operation works out in wartime. There are some plot holes of course, but the story rolls along at such a good pace that they are barely noticeable. It is also notable that there is almost no violence and yet the movie is high in menace. It is set in the First World War, but you would hardly know it. The cast are charming, especially Conrad Veidt who plays the U-boat captain – all the while channelling the spirit of Count Dracula! (Apparently he really was the first choice to play Dracula in the original movie, but was beaten to it by Bela Lugosi.) A fervent anti-Nazi, he later played Major Strasser in Casablanca but never lived to see its success.

Veidt died in 1943 and left the bulk of his estate to the British war effort. Those were the days.

[NB Our film reviews are not, primarily, assessments of the cinematic value of the work. They are written by intelligence professionals and are concerned with the film’s accuracy, relevance to the realities of espionage, place in espionage history, etc.]

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