Monday, February 7, 2011

The House on 92nd Street (20th Century-Fox, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The House on 92nd Street, made by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1945 and the first of a series of what James Agee termed “locale” movies, by which he meant films shot on the actual locations where their stories (supposedly) took place and with at least a pretension to documentary truth even though they were ordinary dramatic films with actors playing fictional characters, albeit sometimes strongly inspired by real-life people. It was made at the tail end of World War II and released on September 10, 1945, while the ink was still drying on the surrender documents signed on the U.S.S. Missouri and a little over a month after the atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atomic bomb features prominently in the plot of this one even though neither the director, writers, cast members or crew knew that while they were shooting!

The producer was Louis de Rochemont, creator of the documentary series The March of Time — which was produced under the auspices of Time magazine and basically applied the breathless style of its print version to a newsreel — and he had left The March of Time in 1943 and signed as a producer with 20th Century-Fox to make fiction films with semi-documentary pretensions. (Ironically, the same day Turner Classic Movies showed this, the lead article in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times was a piece raising the age-old question of just what responsibilities a filmmaker has if s/he is representing their film to be based on reality, including whether documentaries can still be considered honest if they have faked or reconstructed footage to “cover” events the filmmakers either didn’t or couldn’t have recorded for real.) The House on 92nd Street has been considered film noir — 20th Century-Fox’s DVD release is in a series billing itself as noir — and yet it only sporadically uses the visual style of noir (it would take a few years — probably until John Alton photographed T-Men for director Anthony Mann at Eagle-Lion, née PRC — before anyone successfully blended real-life locations with the noir look) and is totally lacking in the moral ambiguity associated with noir.

It’s one of those movies in which the good guys — FBI agents William Dietrich (William Eythe), who’s assigned by the Bureau to infiltrate the German espionage network in the U.S. and act as a double agent to bring it to justice; and George A. Briggs (Lloyd Nolan, in a performance that subtly but definitively steals the film from the nominal lead), his supervisor — are very, very good, and the bad guys — Nazi spies Elsa Gebhardt (Signe Hasso), Charles Ogden Roper (Gene Lockhart), Col. Hammersohn (Leo G. Carroll, already looking avuncular — though it’s ironic to see him running a spy ring for the villains when in his later credits, notably Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., he’s doing the same sort of thing for the good guys!) and Gestapo enforcer Johanna Schmidt (played by a horse-faced actress named Lydia St. Clair — one wonders where they dug her up and what else she did, since she doesn’t look like the easiest person in the world to cast in a business based on physical beauty; she has only six credits listed on and all the others are live TV shows from the early 1950’s) — are very, very bad. The gimmick is that Dietrich is sent away to the Nazi spy-training school in Hamburg and returns with a credential that says he’s not supposed to contact any other agents — only the FBI alters the credential to read that he is supposed to contact other agents, allowing him to find out who they are so the FBI can nab them at the proper moment.

He’s charged with getting not only the usual vanilla information on shipping of troops and war materiel to the Allies but in particular on the mysterious “Project 97” — which as far as the actors, director Henry Hathaway and the writing committee (Charles G. Booth, Barré Lyndon and John Monks, Jr.) were concerned was just your average generic super-explosive the U.S. was secretly developing. The only people who knew what “Project 97” was really supposed to be were de Rochemont (who was actually allowed to watch the original “Trinity” A-bomb test in New Mexico) and the film’s narrator, Reed Hadley, whose narration is the only statement in the film that Project 97 is in fact the A-bomb secret. Dietrich builds a short-wave radio that supposedly can reach Germany, but in fact it only gets as far as the nearest FBI relay station, which sends the information on to Germany but only after altering it to render it harmless to the Allied war effort, and through most of the film the suspense issue is who is the mysterious “Mr. Christopher” who is the unseen head of the German espionage ring.

The House on 92nd Street isn’t much as a noir but it is a tight, well-made, consistently exciting espionage thriller — though given what we now know about J. Edgar Hoover and his private life, when one of the plot points turned on identifying a particular sort of lipstick left on a cigarette Dietrich recovered from an ashtray in Elsa’s back room (she’s a courturier as a front for her espionage activities, and her back room is concealed behind a mirror in one of her dressing rooms that’s really part of a door) and narrator Hadley said the sample was sent to the FBI labs for identification, Charles joked that Hoover merely compared it with his own collection and thereby was able to tell his agents what it was and how they could trace it. It’s a fun, exciting movie and it leads to a genuinely surprising climax in which the mysterious Mr. Christopher turns out to be [spoiler alert!] Elsa Gebhardt in female-to-male drag (and I give Hasso points for pronouncing the name of Eythe’s character “Deet-riche,” with a soft “ch,” the correct German pronunciation, instead of the “Deet-rick” most American actors would use)., though she’s shot down by FBI agents shortly after she peels off her women’s clothes and blonde wig and makes herself over into a none too convincing boy (Hasso was just a bit too full-figured, and her hips way too large, to pull it off) with short dark hair and dressed in a business suit under her dress.