"The House on 92nd Street," (1945), an 88 minute, black and white American thriller from the immediate postwar period, is a crime drama/ spy story with many claims to fame. The mystery has been classified as a film noir, which it is not, although it is in black and white, and does boast some deeply black scenes; perhaps it's best considered as an influential pre-film noir. It was written by Barre Lyndon and Charles G. Booth, directed by Henry Hathaway, and produced by Louis de Rochement, who did similar honors for the "March of Time" newsreels that used to be played in movie houses before the features. It pioneered the semi-documentary look in American filmmaking, which the public loved, and turned out for in droves. The same team of Hathaway and Rochemont would shortly make another semi-documentary address film, 13 Rue Madeleine [DVD
], which would be followed by a boomlet of address-named films, and semi-documentary pictures. And, similarly to 13 RUE MADELEINE, it is a "now it can be told" picture, held back until the end of World War II, so as not to give any information to the Germans and their allies, our enemies at the time.
Similarly to a newsreel, the film opens with a stentorian voiceover from an announcer who sounds true-blue Federal Bureau of Investigation. He tells us that in the war years of 1939-41, America was overrun with German agents - the Axis powers suspected something was up, and it was. (Russian agents were also very active at the time, for the same reason, but this picture does not touch on that aspect of the war.) A fatal New York City taxi accident has occurred; during its investigation, the FBI discovers that the victim was a Nazi spy. Enter Bill Dietrich, a handsome young German-American post-graduate engineering student. The film tells us that the Nazis recruited him after he had visited Hamburg; the internet based Internet Movie Database(IMDb) tells us that the actual man on whom this character was based was German-born; the facts were changed quietly at the request of the FBI. At any rate, Dietrich goes to the FBI and agrees to be a double agent. Handily enough, Dietrich is assigned to break the New York spy ring, and to find the mysterious, ruthless Mr. Christopher.
The movie is based on fact to a very great degree, according to IMDb. "The scene near the beginning of the film where a man is killed by a car is based on a real-life incident. The victim was identified as Julio Lopez Lido but was in actuality Capt. Ulrich von der Osten, a Nazi army officer in the Abwehr (German military intelligence). He was struck and killed by a cab on March 18, 1941, and his body went unclaimed for a time. The man who ran from the scene was actually Kurt Frederick Ludwig, known as Joseph K, a German agent who was eventually caught and sentenced to Alcatraz Prison. He was deported in 1953. The cab driver who hit von der Osten was a man named Sam Lichtman." Furthermore, there was the Duquesne spy ring headed by Frederick Joubert Duquesne; the infamous Ritter case, and the work of real life double agent William G. Sebold. Finally, "the early surveillance footage of the 92nd Street house and the perp walks at the film's conclusion are real footage of Nazi agents."
Moreover, according to IMDb, "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 ... De Rochemont ... and narrator Reed Hadley were both involved in producing government films on the development of the atomic bomb. (Hadley was present at the final test of the bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in July, 1945.) 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." The film's makers also tried to "film where it actually happened," which, in the case of this movie, meant in the inimitably gritty wartime New York City. The house on 92nd Street actually existed - although on 93rd Street. (It has now been demolished.)
So why is the film so little-known? Several well-known actors were used in the film, and several made their debuts here. But the protagonist was played by William Eythe, a man with some charm, and Tyrone Power-like square jaws and strong black eyebrows. But, unfortunately, Eythe had an inconsequential film career; see bit parts in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, ON A WING AND A PRAYER, and was quite short-lived himself. The TV star and veteran actor Lloyd Nolan, Hannah and Her Sisters
, Peyton Place [DVD
], played agent George J. Briggs. Signe Hasso, who was born in Stockholm Sweden, didn't have quite the career she might have either, (she largely worked in TV, but also did HEAVEN CAN WAIT, and THE SEVENTH CROSS); she plays the conspirator Elsa Gebhardt. The Canadian-born Gene Lockhart, Miracle On 34th Street
, His Girl Friday
, Going My Way
, Meet John Doe
, plays Charles Ogden Roper. The English-born Leo G Carroll, who played in the popular TV series, Topper
, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
, also made the films North By Northwest
, and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, and played Colonel Hammersohn in the movie. E. G. Marshall, Vincent Gardenia and Paul Ford all made their debuts here. In addition, many nonprofessionals are seen in the film, usually playing themselves as FBI agents.
Many contemporary viewers will not feel nearly as warmly toward the FBI as the audiences of 1945 did. Still, the picture is worth a look for its extraordinary "you are there" qualities.