A piece of melodramatic agitprop meant to alarm citizens and bolster post-war nationalistic pride, The House on 92nd Street is one of those square-jawed mid-century movies that serves as a recruiting tool for the FBI. It’s not for nothing, after all, that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover put his weight behind this film, working with producer Louis de Rochemont to craft a stolid spy thriller in which the investigative might and technique of the federal crime-fighting agency are held up for celebration.
Though directed by Henry Hathaway, de Rochemont was the driving creative force behind the 1946 film, which claims to work in some documentary surveillance footage, and also be safe for release only “after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.” (The movie was also originally titled Now It Can Be Told, in a further bit of exaggeration.) After about eight minutes of flag-waving backstory narration, the story finally kicks in, centering around William Dietrich (William Eythe), a recent college graduate who gets cruised in laughably direct fashion by German contacts, reports it to authorities, and then becomes a double agent in order to infiltrate a cell of German spies gathering information about the construction of the atom bomb. Lloyd Nolan plays his contact, FBI counter-terrorist chief George Briggs, and Swedish-born Signe Hasso portrays Elsa Gebhardt, his main German preceptor.
There’s a bit of nice detail — and certainly something that would have played as new and entertaining at the time of release — in the manner in which spy instructions are passed to and fro, in microfiche stored in watch faces. Damningly, however, there’s not enough of an injection of a subjective point-of-view to make an audience member feel caught up in this narrative. The movie is concerned, chiefly and probably secondarily as well, with showcasing air-quote elements, like the FBI’s massive records warehouse (approved for shooting by Hoover), as well as state-of-the-art American technique, like steaming open letters and subtly changing the directives of intercepted communiques. All drama or skulking intrigue is drained, chucked out the window, given the heave-ho.
Housed in a regular plastic Amray case with a snap-in spindle, The House on 92nd Street comes to DVD presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with English and Spanish language mono audio tracks and an English language stereo track. (Optional subtitles in each language are also available.) Apart from a scant photo gallery and small recreation of the movie’s press booklet, its only substantive bonus feature is at least a superlative one — an in-depth audio commentary track with noir historian Eddie Muller, who shines a light on some of the movie’s claims of self-importance, noting that while true it was based in fact, its story was mostly taken from the Hans Ritter and Frederick Duquesne spy rings that, while serious, were fairly mundane, and did not involve any atomic bomb secrets. Muller also shows great amusement in rightly pointing out that the parade of freshly scrubbed FBI workers who served as background extras in the movie (men and women alike) all evidence no discernible ethnicity. That — along with Hoover’s insistence that they “switch” the biography of the real mole hero in the Duquesne case, from a German to a natural-born American with parents of German ancestry — provide a compelling snapshot of what The House on 92nd Street is really all about. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C- (Movie) C+ (Disc)