The Spy in Black (Michael Powell / United Kingdom, 1939):

The new war would be formally announced in The Lion Has Wings later that year, here Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger survey the dying sense of gallantry (the "grand illusion") of the old one. Germany during WWI is a bustling neighborhood, a naval commander (Conrad Veidt) and his assistant return from an extended U-boat venture with mighty appetites only to meet shortages at a ritzy restaurant. The humorous gourmet motif (out of Hitchcock's Murder!) follows Veidt through his journey in British soil, picked up by the witty culinary montage that clinches his meeting with his contact (Valerie Hobson) and exacerbated by the vicar's admonition of tardiness at his dinner table ("Not only instability, but criminal risk!"). The celerity of the style enhances the simplicity of the structure as a one-two punch of espionage and counter-espionage: The Lady Vanishes, that writing-on-the-wall benchmark, is cited as Hobson is smothered by a Margaret Dumontish dowager who then starts murmuring in German, the finale is prepared by the throwaway gag about invading vessels bumping into one of their own mines. Powell fuses Pressburger's amusing detail work -- Veidt looking at the motorcycle's mirror (parked, surreally, inside his bedroom) to adjust a tie, the reverend (Cyril Raymond) barging in with gramophone in hand ("Have you heard 'The Soldiers' March'?") to interrupt the drama -- into a dapper study that serves as the bedrock for the genre ingenuity of Contraband as well as the subversion of rigid propagandist filmmaking of 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. "You are English, I am German, we are enemies... It simplifies everything," the spy in black snaps at Hobson. Au contraire, Powell's images insist, pondering human eccentricity on both sides of the conflict for the benefit of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. With Sebastian Shaw, Marius Goring, June Duprez, Athole Stewart, and George Summers. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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