A Second Take
The Spy in Black



often we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.

It’s easy to see why Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker publicly lavish praise on the films of Michael Powell: 1939’s The Spy in Black, a favorite of both, is an editor’s movie, employing as many set-ups as your average Lars von Trier film, all the while retaining a lovely coherence. And while Scorsese would never make a thriller so smooth and droll, his technical ambitions are similar: for maximum expressiveness, put the camera in maximum places—deal with storytelling later. Powell’s first film with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, Spy focuses on German spies in the telling of a WWI-era anti-British plot. Decidedly humanizing the enemy, and on the brink of WWII no less, Powell’s movie bests modern reinterpretations of history like Letters From Iwo Jima by adopting comic dryness, and daring us to guffaw at the death of our own. It’s a peculiar and rather wonderful mismatch of subject matter and tone that, if not a success at elucidating great moral complexities of war, asks us to take unusual and perhaps unflattering pleasure in old intrigues.

An eerie amorality descends early when Frau Tiel (Valerie Hobson) takes the place of a promptly murdered schoolteacher, prepping to intercept with weathered, awkward Capt. Hardt (Conrad Veidt) in the night. The plan: to retrieve British submarine routes in order to have the upper hand. But the upper hand remains tricky enough to obtain between the two spies, whose confidence grows pricklier as Hardt develops unrequited affections for Tiel and she in turn becomes controlling, punishing him like, well, a schoolteacher. Powell explores their tender, bizarre relations with a staggering bevy of camera placements that, far from disorienting, explores space already established from every conceivable angle, showering the two with every available light source. And yet, whenever possible, we’re still in the dark concerning crucial information: only by pretending to reveal so much can the film hide so much. Its suspenseful passages borrow a note or two from Hitchcock—victims are oblivious, much to our cackling enjoyment—but Powell, rather than alternate between victim and perpetrator, hops around the two like mad, conceiving the two as specimens always ready for closer examination.


Powell’s mockery of British nationalism hits full-blast when our “heroes” kidnap an effete priest, who just before being captured has the time to throw a rousing tune on the gramophone. The spies are indifferent, firstly because he shows no threat, and secondly because they can’t in good conscience act hostilely. Allegiances are blurred amidst wartime boredom: the cordial treatment of the prisoner underlines the distrust his captors have for each other. Since these allegiances are the heart of the film, loose ends are tied up with brittle humor. In case we couldn’t keep track, several maneuverings of the spies recounted by a befuddled old man to British officers—much to his and our amusement, much to the officers’ despair. Though one wishes for a greater sense of balance between the two sides, the behavioral comedy on display is supple.

The gravest subjects are also the smallest: if Powell and Pressburger are frivolous in matters of national security, they regard the human heart with the utmost seriousness. Set against each other following numerous upsets, Tiel and Hardt are reduced to bickering—she brings the war into it as if Teutonic birth were akin to leaving the toilet seat up. Even the script’s more didactic bits of speech-mongering, as when Tiel bemoans that “war kills every decent human feeling,” are reduced to what they are: hysteric complaints. Essentially a comedy, The Spy in Black gives way to melancholy, but never sentimentality. Even when Hardt meets a fate of sheer despair—surely a given, otherwise he might pass for a conventional hero—he signs off with a terse, cold quip, and Powell cuts away quickly as ever, keeping things moving in the midst of madness.


By: Sky Hirschkron
Published on: 2007-06-21
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