Saturday, May 17, 2014

The House on 92nd Street (1945)

The House on 92nd Street is included in Fox’s excellent series of film noir releases on DVD. In fact the movie is not even remotely a film noir. It is however an effective spy thriller and is important in being the first movie to adopt the semi-documentary approach that would soon become so popular.

The movie was made shortly before the end of the Second World War. The claim is made in the beginning of the film that it was only able to be made after the dropping of the atomic bombs in August 1945 and since the movie is all about atomic secrets that claim is almost certainly true.

The House on 92nd Street starts with a lengthy introduction filling in the background of suspected German espionage and sabotage efforts in the United States and the early parts of the film are dominated by voiceover narration. The action proper begins shortly before the entry of the United States into the war. The FBI is already undertaking strenuous efforts to uncover German spy rings. They get a big break when German-American university graduate William Dietrich (William Eythe) is approached by a member of a Nazi spy ring. Dietrich is a loyal American and immediately report the approach to the FBI. Special Agent George Briggs (Lloyd Nolan), a senior counter-espionage officer, realises this is an opportunity to infiltrate the German espionage network and Dietrich agrees to become a double agent.

The FBI is particularly concerned about a chance discovery that the Germans are aware of Process 97, a key element in the research into the atomic bomb. A German agent killed in a traffic accident had revealed this fact just before he died, and had also revealed the existence of a very important spy known only as Mr Christopher. William Dietrich’s job will be to find out how the Germans are obtaining information on Process 97, and to discover the identity of Mr Christopher.

Dietrich goes to Hamburg to be trained as a German spy after which he returns to the US and makes contact with Nazi spy Elsa Gebhardt (Signe Hasso). Dietrich has been assigned the task of setting up a radio transmitting station to pass intelligence back to Germany more quickly. What his fellow German spies do not realise is that he has set up a short-range transmitter. His signals are picked up by an FBI radio station which then transmits the messages to Germany. The messages are doctored by the FBI to ensure that the intelligence received in Germany will be either valueless or misleading.

Being a double agent is a dangerous game to play, as Dietrich will find out. As the FBI closes it net on the German spy ring the hyper-suspicious German spies are closing their net on Dietrich.

William Eythe is stolid but effective enough. Lloyd Nolan gives a restrained performance, probably not surprising since the co-operation with the FBI that the film-makers needed required FBI agents to be portrayed in a dignified and quietly heroic manner.

The supporting performances are both more impressive and much more colourful. Signe Hasso is excellent as the ice blonde spy Eva Gebhardt. Leo G. Carroll is superb as the suave spy Colonel Hammersohn, skillfully hinting at the menace beneath the smooth and confident surface. Harry Bellaver and Bruno Wick are convincingly sinister while Lydia St Clair makes a suitably chilling Gestapo operative.

Producer Louis De Rochemont persuaded J. Edgar Hoover to allow many scenes in the movie to be filmed in the actual FBI buildings. To give the movie even greater verisimilitude several of the actors, including Lloyd Nolan, were permitted to undergo a week of FBI training. Much of the surveillance footage shown in the movie is real FBI footage. The Bureau even lent the film-makers surveillance vans from which to shoot some of the location shots in New York. Most of the FBI personnel shown in the movie were actual FBI personnel. The plot of the movie is based in part on two actual FBI cases involving German spy rings.

The movie shows the FBI acting to prevent the Nazis from getting the secrets of the atomic bomb. Ironically within a few years of the film’s release Soviet spies including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg would pass on those very atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

The House on 92nd Street broke entirely new ground with its bold mixing of real documentary footage, scenes shot in a documentary style and much more noirish scenes. Also revolutionary was the extent of location shooting, several years before The Naked City which is usually credited for introducing the semi-documentary style. 

The documentary style and the objectivity of much of the movie prevents it from being true film noir although director Henry Hathaway and his cinematographer Norbert Brodine do manage at times to capture a genuine film noir feel and mood. The mix of styles is uneasy at times but generally speaking, given that the movie was attempting something that had never been done before, it works reasonably well.

This movie is also important in being one of the first Hollywood spy films to focus on gadgetry and technology, elements that are skillfully integrated into the plot rather than being there just to add colour.

As usual Fox have come up with an excellent transfer. Extras include a typically informative commentary track by Eddie Mulller.

The House on 92nd Street is a very important movie historically, pioneering new approaches to both the crime and spy movie genres. This in itself is sufficient to make it worth seeing. Aside from that it’s an entertaining spy thriller. Recommended.

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