Sunday, May 02, 2010

Tonight's Movie: The House on 92nd Street (1945)

THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET is an early "docu-noir" -- some say it's the very first of the genre -- depicting the true story of how the FBI broke up a Nazi spy ring stealing atomic secrets from the U.S. during World War II. This Fox film is a somewhat unique combination of the wartime morale building film and film noir. It was released in September 1945, just weeks after the end of the war.

William Eythe plays Bill Dietrich, a graduating U.S. college student who is recruited as a spy by the Germans. He notifies the FBI, and they put him to work for the U.S. as a double agent. Lloyd Nolan plays Agent Briggs, Dietrich's FBI contact. Signe Hasso, Leo G. Carroll, and Gene Lockhart play members of the German spy ring.

The film won the Oscar for Best Original Story. It's a well-paced 88-minute film which utilizes many actual New York and Washington locations, and also features "real" people, such as FBI employees, throughout the cast. It lays out the FBI's techniques in detail, which is particularly fascinating when viewed from the modern perspective. A gradually widening shot of a hangar-like room with rows and rows of cabinets and people comparing fingerprints actually made me gasp in wonder...a single computer today could now do the work of all those people. There are similar interesting scenes with cryptographers and the like.

One of the interesting thoughts which ran through my mind while watching the film: the German agents are uniformly portrayed as very unpleasant and creepy -- not at all surprising in a WWII film, but I couldn't help wondering why any of them would have wanted to work with each other?

The movie got a bit tedious, and perhaps a bit improbable, during the prolonged final sequence, but up to that point it was highly entertaining, both as a film and as an historical artifact.

Later movies which utilize some of the documentary style of THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET include BOOMERANG! (1947), THE NAKED CITY (1948), HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948), PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), and MYSTERY STREET (1950). These films typically employed narration, location filming, and/or a realistic look at then-current crime-solving procedures. Reed Hadley, who narrates THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, narrated several other film noir titles, including BOOMERANG!, HE WALKED BY NIGHT, WALK A CROOKED MILE (1948), and THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (1950).

Has anyone else noticed how similar many film noir titles can be? For example: ROAD HOUSE, HOUSE OF STRANGERS, THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, HOUSE OF BAMBOO, THE HOUSE ACROSS THE BAY, THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, THE STREET WITH NO NAME, SIDE STREET, DOWN THREE DARK STREETS, MYSTERY STREET, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, SCARLET STREET, PANIC IN THE STREETS... There are even "street"-related titles like WALK A CROOKED MILE, WALK EAST ON BEACON!, or WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. And we won't even start on the titles with "city" or variations of "night." No wonder I sometimes have a little trouble keeping the casts and titles straight!

This film was directed by Henry Hathaway. It was filmed in black and white by Norbert Brodine, who shot other noir titles such as SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT (1946), BOOMERANG! (1947), and KISS OF DEATH (1947).

THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET has been released in an excellent DVD print as No. 7 in the Fox Film Noir series. Extras include a commentary track by the great film noir historian Eddie Muller. Muller is both knowledgeable and personable, and his commentaries are always fun and informative. I'll be listening to this track soon.

Update: Here's a review of THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948), in which Lloyd Nolan also plays George Briggs of the FBI.

Update: This film is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.


Blogger Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Well, now I have to locate my copy and watch this again. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.)

Great review!

8:16 AM  

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