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The Spy in Black

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Introduction

Following Under Secret Orders, the second spy noir with a femme fatale is The Spy in Black, which is also a British film that takes place during World War I.

At the outset what we see indicates that Valerie Hobson is a German spy, who has replaced a British schoolteacher (June Duprez) that two other female German agents have murdered.

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Presentation

Director: Michael Powell. Screenplay: Emeric Pressburger. Producer: Irving Asher, Alexander Korda (uncredited). Cinematographer: Bernard Browne. Music: Miklós Rózsa. Art Director: Frederick Pusey. Editor: Hugh Stewart. Cast: Conrad Veidt (Captain Hardt), Sebastian Shaw (Ashington), Valerie Hobson (The School Mistress), Marius Goring (Schuster), June Duprez (Anne Burnett), Athole Stewart (The Rev. Hector Matthews), Agnes Lauchian (Mrs. Matthews), Cyril Raymond (The Rev. John Harris). Released: Irving Asher Productions (as Harefield), London Film Productions, March 15, 1939 (UK). 82 minutes.

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To take over the teaching position, Hobson travels to the island of Hoy, part of the Orkney archipelago off the north coast of Scotland and the base of Britain’s Grand Fleet.

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Some time later a U-boat captain, Conrad Veidt, is rowed from his submarine to the island along with a motorbike, which he rides to the house that the school has provided Hobson.

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It is quickly apparent that Veidt is attracted to his beautiful confederate, who is in fact his superior officer for their mission. However, Hobson doesn’t reciprocate his flirtations.

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The Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow can be seen from Hobson’s house. When Veidt asks what the plan is, she says it is to sink 15 ships. The details are to come from “a British navel officer with a grudge against the service.”

Veidt asks, “Where did you meet him?

Hobson replies, “At Leeds a month ago.”

“And found he had a price.”

“Rather a high one.”

“Paid by whom?”

“Germany.”

“Only by Germany?”

“And me.”

Without further questioning her, Veidt accepts that Hobson has had to sleep with the traitor (Sebastian Shaw).

Shaw promises to let Veidt and Hobson know “when, where and how” two squadrons of ships will sail past Sand Wick Bay, where they will be vulnerable to a U-boat attack. Veidt says, “We could bag the lot…It could be the biggest smash of the war.”

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In the above map, the following sites are circled: Hoy Island (where Hobson, Veidt and Shaw plot a U-boat attack on ships in Britain’s Grand Fleet), Scapa Flow (where the Grand Fleet is located), and Sand Wick Bay (where U-boats will rendezvous for the attack on two squadrons of ships).

Meanwhile, until Shaw can get the exact information they need, Hobson and Veidt spend their time together.

The following scene deepens our awareness of Veidt’s attraction to Hobson, as well as our belief in Hobson’s cold commitment to German triumph.

In the empty schoolroom Hobson voices her concern to Veidt that she isn’t prepared to succeed as a teacher.

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He comes close to her and says, “I shouldn’t worry. You can teach them far more important things: how to get on an island guarded like Gibraltar [meaning her cleverness to getting on the closely guarded island of Hoy]; how to twist a British and a German naval officer around your little finger; and a lot of other things never learned in school.”

“Doesn’t all this belong to an evening school for grownups?”

“It is evening and I’m grown up.”

“But you’re not one of my pupils.”

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She walks away to turn off the lights in the classroom.

Veidt follows her and asks, “Tell me what became of the real Miss Burnett [i.e., the original teacher]?”

“Do you know the story of Little Red Riding Hood?”

“Um-hum. It had a happy ending.”

“That’s where her story is different.”

“She met with an accident?”

“Yes, an accident.”

“Were you present?”

“I obey orders in my service.”

“What a service,” he says disparagingly.

“Have you ever fired a torpedo at an unarmed ship?”

“That’s different.”

“It’s certainly more wholesale.”

They return to the house. Before they go into their separate bedrooms, Hobson speaks sharply to Veidt. “What right have you to look down on me? I obey my orders as you obey yours. We don’t choose the jobs they’ve given us or the means of carrying them out. You and I are only parts of a machine for destruction, like it or not.” In his room Veidt smiles.

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Unexpectedly, June Duprez’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) comes to the island for a visit. Instead of finding his intended at the house, he encounters three mysterious-behaving strangers: Shaw, Hobson and Veidt. In short order they take him prisoner, tie him to a chair and, while Hobson holds a gun on him, she has him drink a glass of milk through a macaroni straw. Raymond’s experience reinforces our impression that Hobson is an enemy spy.

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The night before the attack on the fleet, Veidt spars with Shaw over what will happen to Hobson. Veidt wants to take her with him to his U-boat when he goes on board to explain the details of the plan. But he slips up when he says that his orders are to do this “upon completion of the mission.” Shaw cleverly responds that this can only mean that Hobson will accompany Veidt after the ships are sunk. Veidt is forced to give in to Shaw’s logic. In fact, when Veidt originally reviews his orders for the mission, not only is there no mention that his female partner will return with him to Germany, there is no picture provided of the woman. Therefore, we assume Veidt is lying to Shaw, and he is scheming to keep Hobson for himself.

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When Veidt returns to Hobson’s house after his meeting on the U-boat, Shaw is with him. Veidt crudely maneuvers to get Shaw to leave. “Don’t you have somewhere to go? Supposing you set off as an example.” Shaw retorts, “Come on, can’t you have a bit of tact? Can’t you see we’d like to be together?” Veidt takes hold of Shaw’s arm and makes him leave the house.

While Hobson is in the kitchen, Veidt tries to sweet talk her. “Can’t you see an hour like this will never come again? Our job is done…In a week we’ll be in Kiel. How we’ll celebrate. [The camera cuts from Veidt to show Hobson seeming to look far off, and unresponsive.] And then we’ll make a trip to Berlin. I can see us lunching in the Hotel Alto, and the Iron Cross in your handbag. You will be the only girl in Berlin in silk stockings.”

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Hobson, looks down and then steps toward Veidt. “Silk stockings is my cue to go to bed.”

The lower half of a Dutch door is closed between them. Veidt has been speaking to her with the upper half wide open. He is also blocking her from getting out of the kitchen.

He says, “I’ve served under many commanders, but none I admire more than you.”

“Please let me go.”

“Commander Tiel, don’t forget you have won a victory and that a good commander must celebrate with his men.”

Instead of speaking, she whispers, “If I’m in command, I order you to let me go.”

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Hobson opens the lower half of the Dutch door and steps backward. Veidt enters the kitchen.

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He takes her in his arms, and they kiss. She pulls away and runs upstairs to her room.

Veidt shuts the door to his room loudly, and Hobson assumes he has locked himself inside, according to past practice. Instead, he remains in the shadows of the hallway between their two bedrooms.

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Moments later Hobson leaves her room and goes outside the house, where she meets Shaw who has been waiting for her.

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Veidt secretly follows her and listens to their conversation. He observes that they are really in love with each other.

Worse, he finds out that Hobson is a British agent, Shaw isn’t a traitor, and he is about to be arrested.

Worst of all, he learns that Shaw’s actual plan was for Veidt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a “destroyer flotilla” wipe out the U-boats with depth charges.

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Veidt closes his eyes despondently when he hears Shaw tell Hobson, “In a few hours there won’t be any U-boats in Sand Wick Bay. Just a few spots of grease drifting out to the North Sea.”

There is nearly a half hour more to The Spy in Black. But for the purposes of explaining how it is an early example of the femme fatale in film noir, no more of the story needs to be presented. For the first 55 minutes of the film, what makes the plot so unusual is that Valerie Hobson is not only a double agent, she is also a double femme fatale. Presumably, she has seduced Sebastian Shaw into betraying the Grand Fleet. And, although she doesn’t intend to twist Conrad Veidt around her little finger, his infatuation with her makes it that much easier for the British navy to carry out their mission of annihilating the U-boats.

Like Veidt, we have been played. Hobson is neither a German spy nor Shaw’s femme fatale. (In fact, Shaw and Hobson are husband and wife in the film.) How did Hobson pull off the deception? The surprise revelation is that June Duprez survived the attempt on her life, and the female German agent who was supposed to replace Duprez was herself replaced by Hobson. Also like Vedit, we don’t learn Hobson’s true identity (and her national loyalty) until she makes the mistake of being romantic with Shaw, which her enemy, Veidt, witnesses.

Because of what Veidt overhears, he is able to evade arrest and escape from the island. Later in the film, the civilian passengers on a ship, including Hobson, are Veidt’s prisoners. One of them says, “We’re all in the hands of Providence.” Hobson speaks up. “You’re in the hands of a man who cares nothing for his life or yours. And it’s all my fault — because I forgot we were at war. Forgot that war means that it kills every fine, decent human feeling.”

Hobson might also reproach herself because of something else she forgot. It was her fault to have ceased, even for only a couple of minutes, to be the femme fatale that she had played so skillfully and successfully. The Spy in Black makes it clear what victory requires in the world of espionage. The false mask can never risk being removed; a spy can never show decent human feeling. This warning would not only apply to Hobson, but as well to Veidt.

(For a discussion of the “humanizing” of the femme fatale in film noir, see the theme “Soft” Femme Fatales in the page International Lady.)

Addendum

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During the Second World War era, the queen of spy films, including spy noirs, is Valerie Hobson.

Below is a list of her spy films: title, date, director, and male co-star. The last four films are spy noirs.

The Great Impersonation, 1935, Alan Crosland, with Edmund Lowe

Secret of Stamboul (The Spy in White), 1936, Andrew Marton, with James Mason

The Silent Battle (Continental Express), 1939, Herbert Mason, with Rex Harrison

Q Planes (Clouds over Europe), 1939, Tim Whelan & Arthur B. Woods, with Laurence Olivier & Ralph Richardson

The Spy in Black (U-Boat 29), 1939, Michael Powell, with Conrad Veidt

Contraband (Blackout), 1940, Michael Powell, with Conrad Veidt

Unpublished Story, 1942, Harold French, with Richard Greene

Adventures of Tartu (Sabotage Agent), 1943, Harold S. Bucquet, with Robert Donat

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