Thursday, June 29, 2017

House on 92nd Street, The (1945)

Director: Henry Hathaway


A month after the United States had dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and mere days after Japan issued its unconditional surrender, effectively ending World War II, is released a motion picture shrouded in in a backstory as if it was a secret, not to be seen until the war was won. This noir picture about domestic espionage would capture the imaginations of audiences yet to come down from the high of finally winning the war. Produced with the cooperation of the FBI, this feature reminds viewers to keep an eye open for traders in the midst, for even the smallest things could carry large consequences.

The House on 92nd Street is a film noir spy picture presented in semi-documentary style about an American double-agent who infiltrates a secret string of Nazi spies in the early days of World War II. The film represents the tale as a documented true story about a bright college student of German family heritage, Bill Dietrich (William Eythe). Approached by Nazi spies because of his ancestry and IQ, this American born student informs the FBI of his encounters. FBI Agent George Briggs (Lloyd Nolan) concocts the idea to use the young man as a double-agent to delve into the secret ring of Nazi espionage. Dietrich’s actions have him working for his contact Elsa Gebhardt (Signe Hasso), a Nazi agent moonlighting as a New York dress designer, who speaks for an unseen Nazi authority figure known only as “Mr. Christopher.” Through the dangerous and deadly game played by Detrick and Briggs, FBI find their Mr. Christopher and bring down the Nazi infiltration, discovering that the Germans were gathering information on the American research on the atomic bomb, servicing as a wakeup call for audiences of the domestic dangers to keep eyes open for.

At the time of the film’s production and release the feature was far more gripping and relevant to the modern events as the war had literally just concluded days before. It is rather amazing how the filmmakers quickly molded the movie to be so very current with the recent use of the atomic bomb that had brought the conflict to a sudden and crippling conclusion. However now separated with time and history since these historical events we can observe the film as pandering to the FBI. After all it was with the FBI’s cooperation that aided in the inspiration of the plot and supplying of numerous agents as consultants and even as extras for production. The film’s tale is a bit too clean and tidy for such an event in which it depicts and paints the FBI as a well-oil machine of efficiency in carrying out justice during a time of heightened strife.

Directed by Henry Hathaway, The House on 92nd Street presents its tale in an interesting manner. Hathaway, an Academy Award nominated director, was beginning to delve into a more noir style to his recent storytelling, but as an added twist this story was penned in a manner that presents the plot to be a documented true event. The film opens in a documentary style before falling into a more recognizably common narrative storytelling with the continuing voice over to guide the audience through. This new documentary styling would earn Hathaway some critical praise and began a trend in Hathaway’s productions seen within several of his future films.

Actual footage from FBI files are cut into the film to manifest the agency’s actions of cracking down on spies, aiding in the narrative’s realism. The conclusion would also cut together newsreel footage of actual captured German spies within the American population adding to the documentary style the earlier sections of the film began. Not only did this impact naïve audiences into thinking that what they were watching was historically actuate events, but helped to build up a sense of trust for the US government and its powerful agencies.

The truth is that the story was based on a series of actual events including American double agent Willian G. Sebold and bringing down of the Duquesne Spy Ring in 1941. These real events would be penned and pachagedin a more cleaned up tale that was both FBI and J. Edgar Hoover approved, painting the Bureau in the best of lights. In the film the FBI’s actions were done so cleanly and with precision that it would wow more naïve viewers, but most likely covered any ugly blemishes that FBI are known to have been when carrying out some cases.

William Eythe stars as Bill Dietrich, the American hero who put his life on the line to help his country. This would be perhaps the best-known performance of Eythe, who was a far lesser supporting actor before the war. He had moved his way into better roles when many of the best actors were taken in by the war efforts. But with the end of the war Eythe’s career would take a quick fall to B status as Hollywood’s stars returned and bright new actor emerged.

Lloyd Nolan is featured as Dietrich’s primary FBI contact in the feature, in a way representing the entire Bureau to the audience in this picture. This too was one of Nolan’s more memorable performances for this lesser known actor as his appearance and acting style lacked the grace of a leading man.

Signe Hasso depicts the film’s primary antagonist Elsa Gebhardt, the contact of major Nazi spy ring based out of New York City.  Once dubbed “the next Garbo,” this Swedish born actress’ accent helped to make her a believable foreign woman of style, but would not lend to actually making her a superior actress. Her forced villainous flair more likely was inspired by poor writing, the very same writing that made the FBI look as the shinning beacon of all American morals. However, Hasso’s performance did not aid in manifesting anything better than a B-film baddy.

Feeding off the nation’s emotional high of victory in both Europe and Japan this film generally was praised by audiences, while meeting mixed reviews from critics at the time of its release. I small glimpse into the inner workings of the FBI was a bit an eye opener for many viewers.  Observing a representation of how the agency investigates cases may be nothing too new, but there are moments that shared previews of impressive means by which they worked, including the massive fingerprint catalogue, which works in the manner like am archaic computer of sorts. Critics were not all too thrilled, but still managed to feed the film some positives marks, perhaps also because of the recent end of World War II.

The film would be honored at the 1946 Academy Awards with the honor for Best Story, but in time the film quickly fell out of the minds of audiences. Somehow a sequel would be produced in 1948’s The Street with No Name with Lloyd Nolan reprising the role of Agent Briggs, directed by Willian Keighley. It’s tale about the agency fight against gangster would utilize the similar documentary style, but would only meet mixed reviews at best.

Looking back The House on 92nd Street serves merely as a clean package that for may have been the first look into the world of the FBI’s on a more sophisticated level than the usual G-man type of story. Its plot is a glorified fictionalization of actual events, which although interesting, prove to be too clean for even a Hollywood script. It serves as a capsule into the past, but gets swallowed up by far more intellectually and emotionally moving films of the post- World War II era. It was worth a watch, but something most will not revisit.

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