The House on 92nd Street (1945)
“This is the man whose sin was greater than murder…in “THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET”.”
Director: Henry Hathaway
Cast: William Eythe, Lloyd Nolan, Signe Hasso
Synopsis: Bill Dietrich becomes a double agent for the FBI in a Nazi spy ring.
The House on 92nd Street was released just a few short weeks after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, so the immediacy of its plot combined with a groundbreaking semi-documentary style ensured it received both favourable reviews and large audiences. Viewed today, there’s something quaint about all that antiquated technology hyped as shiny and new: gasp with wonder at the way a man’s fingerprints can be matched to records within five minutes! Gaze with awe as a movie camera whirrs behind – wait for it – a two-way mirror! Thrill at the way a lipstick-stained cigarette butt leads our intrepid FBI agents to a key suspect!
Handsome but bland William Eythe plays Bill Dietrich, a German-American approached by Nazi agents to spy for the Fatherland. Going straight to the FBI, Dietrich is employed as a double agent by Agent Briggs (Lloyd Nolan). Briggs is endeavouring to uncover a Nazi spy ring that came to his attention following the hit-and-run death of a Nazi agent, and it’s not long before Dietrich tricks his way into the ring, led by a mysterious Mr. Christopher and blonde but spiky Elsa Gebhardt (Signe Hasso) who is posing as a fashion designer.
To be fair to The House on 92nd Street, all that quaint technology must have been pretty mind-blowing back in 1945, and it still maintains curiosity value today. After all, you can only work with the tools you’ve got, and the way the FBI are shown to patiently chip away at the layers of deception behind which the Nazi spies operate is quite ingenious. Its precise efficiency is open to question, though, given that the movie received the co-operation of the Bureau. This means that all the Nazi agents are either shifty looking or surly, while the FBI agents are clean-cut examples of American manhood in its prime. And just to make their duplicity clear, the leading Nazi agents are often seen reflected in – or through – mirrors.
Probably of more interest than the technology is the use of authentic locations which provide a kind of time capsule, offering us a glimpse of the streets of New York in the 1940s. The performances are mostly ok, typical examples of studio polish, but the material the actors are given to work with lacks any kind of humour, meaning the heroes come across as just as dour as the bad guys, and because of the movie’s rigid adherence to its semi-documentary style, none of the leads possess any kind of individuality.
(Reviewed 21st June 2012)