When Emily Crane, a photo editor at Life Magazine, refuses to turn over to a Senate committee the names and files of a civil rights organization she's associated with, she doesn't realize she'll soon be out of a job and probably the cause of a young German being stabbed to death. That's not the least of it. Soon she'll be refusing a great hamburger while a senior Senate committee staff man uses catsup on a white dining clothe to illustrate the red menace. And finally, she'll find herself clambering over the interior catwalk of New York's Grand Central Station dome, high above the floor, while killers try to insure she trips. To my mind, The House on Carroll Street is a solid and talented, if not exceptional, child of Hitchcock.
The year is 1951 and anti-Communism hysteria is in full bloom. Congressional demagogues, black-listing and secret FBI files abound. When Emily (Kelly McGillis) loses her job, we learn she's under FBI surveillance. Agent Cochrane (Jeff Daniels) has been assigned to take secret photographs of her, find out who she talks to and to follow her about New York. He observes when, in need of a job, she is interviewed by Miss Venable (Jessica Tandy) to read to the old lady. And one afternoon, relaxing in the townhouse garden of Miss Venable's home, she overhears part of a conversation in German coming from the next house. Naturally nosy, she moves closer through the bushes, glimpses the face of a young German fellow she accidently met a day or two before on the street...and then sees the face of the Senate staff head, Ray Salwen (Mandy Patinkin). Salwen was responsible for hauling her before the committee. Something is not right. A few days later she follows the German to a Jewish cemetery and finds him writing down the names of dead Jews. He seems scared. Before long, she is helping him escape from the house on Carroll Street, only to see him stabbed to death in front of her. By now, FBI agent Cochrane not only realizes something is very off, he realizes Emily Crane has nice legs, is quite likable and may be in danger. He's puzzled when he is warned off by his superiors and then taken off her case. In solid Hitchcockian style, we have been following this nice and nosy woman while she slowly discovers skullduggery and then realizes that she has placed herself at great risk. And in equally solid Hitchcockian style, we have met the man in agent Cochrane who with persistence and humor will attempt to keep her from danger while joining her in uncovering a plot that deals with German war criminals and powerful men in high places.
The movie has well-directed set pieces, ranging from a covert meeting in a huge, dim Greenwich Village book store to a spooky breaking-and-entering into the now abandoned house on Carroll Street (where Emily meets a man with a knife) to the exploration of the tunnels below and the girders high above the Grand Central main station. Most of all, it has two instantly appealing main characters in McGillis and Daniels. Both are completely natural in their portrayals. They have guileless faces. We immediately like both of them. Daniels in particular shows the kind of open-faced honesty that makes the movie so satisfying. The caveat I have is Mandy Patinkin. He is a forceful, intense actor. Patinkin makes Salwen a creature of such supreme self-confidence, such repellant humor that Salwen doesn't just stand for the evils of the period, he disgusts us. Patinkin's self-serving, power-justifying Salwen, full of phony patriotism and contemptuous high spirits, in my opinion very nearly overbalances the movie. Patinkin is just an inch away from becoming a caricature. Added to that are two speeches that Patinkin is given to justify his actions. Unfortunately, they move over into manipulated melodrama. The speeches are so over-the-top they tend to place the movie on hold while Patinkin gives them. However, the screenwriter is Walter Bernstein, a talented man who was black-listed for years. I'm more than willing to cut him some slack.
I think The House on Carroll Street is a well-crafted semi-romantic thriller which doesn't use explosives (well, there's one), cynicism or cumbersome back stories. It has two attractive and likable leads, a plot with a message or two which keeps moving along and a bit of humor. It also has a happy ending which, in one regard, may be unexpected. The DVD transfer looks fine. It's not anamorphic. There are no extras.