Henry Hathaway | 84 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U
Here’s an unusual one from the pantheon of film noir. These days we’d probably call it a docu-drama, though thankfully there are no talking heads, but there is a factual voiceover narration. The story, we’re told, comes from the FBI’s files and is based on a real case — IMDb tells me the original title was Now It Can Be Told and it’s “loosely based on the case of Duquesne Spy Ring headed by Frederick Joubert Duquesne and the work of real life double agent William G. Sebold.” So there you go.
The story we actually see centres on Bill Dietrich, an American student of Germanic descent who’s approached by someone with an offer to train in Germany. This being set in a period when Hitler was on the rise, Bill toddles off to the FBI, who inform him that he’s being recruited to be a Germany spy… and so they encourage him to go and become a double agent. On his return to America, he infiltrates a group who are stealing weapons secrets and things progress from there. And they’re based in a house on New York’s 92nd Street, hence the title.
What this all really allows for is a film of two halves, though thankfully it’s not obviously divided up that way. On the one hand we have a double-agent spy thriller, which has a noir-ish tinge but isn’t the most representative film of the genre; on the other, a fairly factual look at the contemporary workings of the FBI. Many of the smaller parts were played by real FBI agents and a lot of time is put into showing how they really work and investigate a case. At the time I imagine this was a fascinating procedural; now, we’re all a bit more familiar with how such things go, but it still works as an historical document.
The tone is very reverent toward the Bureau, but as it was made while the US was still at war with Japan (it was released a week after their surrender; we’ll come back to that in a moment) that’s understandable. I don’t think it goes too far — they’re certainly shown to be faultless good guys, but at the same time they’re not superheroes. Plus none of this really gets in the way of the more straightforwardly thriller-ish side of the story, which has suitable amounts of tension and an all-action climax, plus a decent twist/reveal for who The Man Behind It All is.
Two final things, then: first, another bit of trivia from IMDb that I found interesting and so will quote more-or-less in full:
The movie deals with the theft by German spies of the fictional “Process 97,” a secret formula which, the narrator tells us, “was crucial to the development of the atomic bomb.” The movie was released on September 10, 1945, only a month after the atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan, and barely a week after Japan’s formal surrender. While making the film, the actors and director Henry Hathaway did not know that the atomic bomb existed, or that it would be incorporated as a story element in the movie. (None of the actors in the film mentions the atomic bomb.) However, co-director/producer Louis De Rochemont and narrator Reed Hadley were both involved in producing government films on the development of the atomic bomb. After the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Hadley and screenwriter John Monks Jr. hastily wrote some additional voice-over narration linking “Process 97” to the atomic bomb, and Rochemont inserted it into the picture in time for the film’s quick release.
Well there you go, eh? Don’t get much more timely than that.
Secondly, from Wikipedia: “Although praised when released in 1945, the film when released on DVD in 2005 received mostly mixed reviews. Christopher Null writes, “today it comes across as a bit goody-goody, pandering to the FBI, pedantic, and not noirish at all.”” I think I’ve addressed most of these points already, but it’s the last one that gets me. Essentially he seems to be moaning that “they didn’t make a good enough film noir!” Might be because no one ever knew they were making a film noir, eh? How can you expect something to conform to a set of rules that were only defined after the fact? Hathaway and co didn’t fail at making a noir, they just made a film that doesn’t fit the later-defined template as well as the films used to define said template. I know, four words from some other online critic hardly merit a whole paragraph, but it does bug me when people write daft things like that.
Anyway, back to the point: The House on 92nd Street is not the best example of film noir one could find, certainly, but it is an entertaining and informative documentary-ish spy-thriller.
The House on 92nd Street is on More4 tomorrow, Thursday 29th September, at 10:30am (and, naturally, on More4 +1 one hour later).