The House on 92nd Street (1945) Henry Hathaway
20th Century Fox DVD (1:28)
The House on 92nd Street is a strange bird. It starts as a semidocumentary, complete with voiceover narration about the ongoing struggles and activities of the FBI (made with the full cooperation of J. Edgar Hoover, who can been seen in the film) and using actual agents on camera. Hathaway (or more accurately, producer Louis De Rochemont, who was the driving force behind the film) incorporates stock footage of FBI agents and actual criminals, making 1945 audiences wonder whether they were watching a crime drama or a documentary.
The movie then focuses on an actual plot. An American university student named Bill Dietrich (William Eythe, above) is recruited by the Nazis, largely due to his German name and nationality. Dietrich contacts his local FBI and meets agent George Briggs (Lloyd Nolan, below right). Briggs asks Dietrich to infiltrate the Nazis, acting as a double agent to gather intelligence from them.
From this point, we think the rest of the film is going to be from Dietrich’s point of view, but we’re mistaken. In a dramatic shift, we spend significant time looking into the Nazi ring itself, which constitutes the most fascinating part of the film with some excellent characters and wonderful performances including Signe Hasso as Elsa Gebhardt, Lydia St. Clair as Johanna Schmidt, and Leo G. Carroll as Colonel Hammersohn. Many of these and other characters were based on real German spies and their presence in the film creates some excellent tension and suspense.I wish I could’ve been part of the original audience for this film. I’m sure many of them felt as if they’d been given a read “behind-the-scenes” look at FBI operations, and truthfully, the film may contain a fair amount of authenticity. The voice-over narration was provided by Reed Hadley, who would’ve been quite familiar to audiences in the mid-1940s, having provided narration for many Department of Defense films, but also the voice of the cowboy on the Red Ryder radio shows of the 1940s and Zorro in the 1939 radio serial Zorro’s Fighting Legion. I don’t know what type of promotional tactics 20th Century Fox concocted at the time, but most of these actors were somewhat unknown to the general public. Although Lloyd Nolan had appeared in many previous films, I doubt he was a household name. Leo G. Carroll might have been recognized by Alfred Hitchcock fans by having appeared in Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941). (Carroll’s famous role in Spellbound (1945) wasn’t in the public mind yet, since the film was released a few months after The House on 92nd Street.) Also, if you’ve got a good eye, you’ll spot E.G. Marshall in his first screen appearance.
If the film “felt” authentic at the time (It won an Oscar for Best Original Story – Charles G. Booth – and an Edgar Award for Best Screenplay), it certainly no longer does now. Yet, putting yourself back in the mindset of most Americans in 1945, you can understand why it did seem authentic. Therein lies both the film’s charm and its datedness.
In his commentary on the Fox DVD, Eddie Muller brings up the question of whether The House on 92nd Street is a film noir at all. You could make a case for either side. Although it contains several elements of noir (especially its ending, which uses showcases some wonderful cinematography), the film could also be considered a police (or agency) procedural. The semidocumentary style comes in and goes out, confusing the audience somewhat and taking it a little farther away from noir territory with each instance. However you classify it, The House on 92nd Street is effective, often gripping, and definitely worth a look. Does it belong in your film noir collection? Yes.
The House on 92nd Street is getting a Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber on November 15, 2016.