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Comparing the book and the film

The Spy in Black (aka U-Boat 29) was the movie where Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger first met. Based on the story by J. Storer Clouston, it was being filmed as a vehicle for two of Alexander Korda's star players, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. But it wasn't going well.

The original script followed the book quite closely, was too wordy and didn't have a very good part for Conrad or Valerie.

Korda called a meeting where he introduced a small man saying "Well now, I have asked Emeric to read the script, and he has things to say to us."

Powell then went on to record (in A Life in Movies) how:

    Emeric produced a very small piece of rolled-up paper, and addressed the meeting. I listened spellbound.

    Since talkies took over the movies, I had worked with some good writers, but I had never met anything like this. In the silent days, the top screenwriters were technicians rather than dramatists. They knew that things had to move and they moved them. In the America of those days, only the screenplays of D.W. Griffith indicated a wide knowledge and a general culture, both in the image on the screen, and in the titles which accompanied the silent film and involved the spectator in the action. I was familiar with all this from my years in France, for the European cinema remained highly literate and each country, conscious of its separate culture and literature, strove to outdo the other. All this was changed by the talkies. America, with its enormous wealth and enthusiasm and it technical resources, waved the big stick. Films must talk! And they must talk American. Famous writers and dramatists all over the world from Nobel Prize winners to Edgar Wallace, were hurried to Hollywood, put into rabbit hutches and told to write dialogue. Three years of confusion and agony followed, at the end of which eight men in Hollywood and New York had the whole world's film market in their pockets. The European film no longer existed. The national film was a thing of the past, or existed only on sufferance, or because Paris is a nice place to live. Only the great German film business was prepared to fight the American monopoly, and Dr Goebbels soon put a stop to that in 1933. But the day that Emeric walked out of his flat, leaving the key in the door to save the storm-troopers the trouble of breaking it down, was the worst day's work that the clever doctor ever did for his country's reputation, as he was soon to find out. As I said, I listened spellbound to this small Hungarian wizard, as Emeric unfolded his notes, until they were at least six inches long. He had stood Storer Clouston's plot on its head and completely restructured the film.

So how exactly did Emeric change the film? Powell gives some clues about Emeric changing the gender of some characters, but let's compare the book and the film.

The Book

The Film

The Visitor
Lieutenant Von Belke of the German Navy
Lieutenant in a U-boat crew. Dropped by his Captain (Wiedermann) on an un-named Scottish island (referred to by the pseudonym of the Windy Isles - the book was written in 1917 and they didn't want to identify where the grand fleet lay at anchor, as if there was anybody who didn't know of Scarpa Flow <G>)

His motorbike breaks down and he has to hide up overnight and dodge various pursuers during the next day until he can meet his contact on the 2nd night.

He spends part of the day gazing across at the fleet from a hiding place.

The island of Hoy is only about 10 miles long & 3 miles wide. It's also quite open & empty so it'd be hard to hide for long. Von Belke drops nails to stop one pursuer also on a motorbike and cuts a phone line to stop another calling for help so it'd be pretty obvious that there's someone up to no good on the island.

Captain Hardt of the German Navy
Captain of a U-boat, arrives in Keil expecting some rest but is sent back to sea on a special mission. He is dropped on the island of Hoy near the rock stack, the Old Man of Hoy and rides his motorbike to meet his contact.

He is dressed in a black riding coat and is thus The Spy in Black.

The Dupe
The Reverend Alexander Burnett
Minister to a small parish in south east Scotland. His picture appears in the paper with a group of young men about to go to France (and probably not come back).

Rev Burnett is sent a newspaper clipping about a minister who is about to retire from his post in the Windy Islands. After the Sunday service he meets a man from Lancashire, who suggests he applies for the vacant post in the Windy Islands.

Anne Burnett
Schoolteacher, engaged to be married to the Reverend John Harris (their photo appears in the newspaper) and then take up a post as schoolteacher on the island of Hoy.

The Switch
Rev Burnett is due to stop off with his friend Drummond in Edinburgh, but gets a cable saying a friend will pick him up & drive him to Edinburgh. Burnett is a bit suspicious of the telegram as Drummond is careful with the pennies & the cable is a bit wordy.

Drummond's friend arrives and it's Mr Taylor, the man from Lancashire. He comes in for tea before they leave and asks loads of questions about Burnett. The chauffeur stays in the car. Rev Burnett's maid takes out some tea & is shocked to see the chauffeur is the double of Rev Burnett - but doesn't mention it.

They drive along the coast & the chauffeur claims to see a light out to sea. They get out to investigate & the chauffeur clobbers Burnett.

Anne Burnett is getting ready to catch the train but the carrier is late. Posh lady arrives and mentions that she saw his car broken down so she offers Anne a lift.

As they drive along the posh lady asks Anne loads of questions (the chauffeuse takes notes). Then they chloroform Anne & drive into a barn.

A Navy patrol thinks it sees a light on shore & goes to investigate.

The First Clue
Lieutenant Topham of the Royal Navy goes to see Drummond and tells him they've just fished Rev Burnett out of the sea. He had been hit on the head and tied up. Topham asks about the telegrams (Drummond was sent one to say Burnett wasn't coming and he was suspicious of that) and also mentions Commander Blacklock, an officer on special service.

Nothing so obvious :)

Trouble on the Ferry
The chauffeur, now dressed as a reverend (and so is The Spy in Black) is on the ferry to Hoy. Also on the ferry is an attractive lady, Miss Holland. They get talking and Miss Holland claims to know Rev Burnett.

As Anne Burnett gets off the ferry she is met by Rev & Mrs Matthews who try to take control of her but she manages to maintain her independence - to the displeasure of the Matthews'.

The Governess
Mr & Mrs Craigie decide to engage a governess for their two girls. Mrs Craigie announces that her friend Mrs Armitage, in Kensington, knew a lady who knew a charming and well-educated girl

"And who does she know?" interrupted her husband
[Thinks! Could this be the source of the exchange between Clive & Hoppy in Blimp which is also about a governess?]

The governess is Miss Holland.
[The book's a bit confused about Miss Holland. She vanishes just after Craigie meets a minister but it's not clear where they are or who the minister is]

No need for the governess.

The Meeting
Von Belke meets his contact at last. Introduced as Herr Adolph Tiel (the chauffeur) who is pretending to be the Reverend Burnett.

Mr Taylor from Lancashire is identified as Schumann, the head of the German spy ring. Tiel tells Belke how they worked the plan so far.

Von Belke is put into a back room in the cottage and greatly resents his treatment from Tiel who is not "Officer Class".

Later a lady comes to join them at the cottage. She is pretending to be the sister of the Rev Burnett but is introduced to Von Belke as another member of the spy ring. This was the lady who stayed with the Craigie's for a while as a governess. She stayed with them to get a passport with clearance to visit the Island of Hoy. [The book didn't make it clear that the Craigie's were on Hoy]

Captain Hardt (his name tags are anglicised to Hart) meets "Anne Burnett" the schoolteacher. It's not the Anne Burnett we saw before.

Hardt devours the ham & butter (there are food restrictions in Germany) and Miss Burnett locks him safely in his room for the night.

In the morning Hardt is shown that his room overlooks the Grand Fleet at anchor in Scarpa Flow.

The Traitor
Von Belke is introduced to Lt Ashington of the Royal Navy. Not at all happy since he lost his first command through his own mistake.

Ashington tells the Germans when the Fleet is due to sail and says they can line up the U-boats outside Scarpa Flow.

Von Belke returns to his U-boat and arranges for a squadron of submarines to be ready to attack the fleet.

Hardt is introduced to Lt Ashington of the Royal Navy. Not at all happy since he lost his first command through his own mistake.

Ashington tells the Germans when the Fleet is due to sail and says they can line up the U-boats outside Scarpa Flow.

Hardt returns to his U-boat and arranges for a squadron of submarines to be ready to attack the fleet.

The Sting
It turns out that Tiel was really Commander Blacklock all along. They'd found Rev Burnett and worked out what was going on. Miss Holland had intercepted the real Tiel on the ferry & he'd been arrested soon afterwards. She'd joined them at the Manse pretending to be another German spy pretending to be the sister of the Reverend Burnett.

The submarine squadron was destroyed, Belke was arrested. Everything was explained.

Quite a straightforward story really.

A much more complicated twist in the tail which I won't give away here - watch the film :)

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