The House on 92nd Street (1945, Henry Hathaway)
Cold, nihilistic, unsentimental, unfeeling, not at all personable and at times slightly nightmarish, The House on 92nd Street is one of the crown jewels of 20th Century Fox’s backlog of film noir; it’s more acidic than even the nastiest classics of its genre — certainly more of a real-world crime drama than the studio’s Laura — because it refuses to even construct an anti-hero in its lead, instead keeping us at arm’s length from knowing anyone. Giddily voyeuristic for a film that so lovingly touts the efficiency of U.S. intelligence programs, Henry Hathaway’s remarkable thriller means to create an experience as methodical and second-hand — but not as mundane — as that of the career spies and technicians we see throughout, parsing out and investigating and analyzing and retooling things from a great distance. A safe distance, even; somehow Hathaway has made something interactive from the most clinical of origins. What could have been a rote narration of a curious casefile becomes an engrossing ride that wrings intrigue from the smallest details.
Since there’s no general agreement on what absolutely constitutes film noir, we can skirt around the fact that some would argue The House on 92nd Street is not “pure” noir because of the unambiguous “goodness” of its lead character, an FBI informant played by the blandly rugged Fox contracter William Eythe (even if his double-agent activities do slightly anticipate the moral anguish of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night). This seems a meaningless point when confronted with the tremendous mystery and strangeness of all of the secondary characters Eythe’s Bill Dietrich comes into contact with, which are as chilling and unforgettable as the odd, eccentric faces on the sidelines in Hitchcock’s Gaumont films: Leo G. Carroll’s kindly, calm, poker-faced Hammersohn; Lydia St. Clair’s brilliantly anxious Johanna Schmidt; Alfred Linder’s sinister Klein, and onward — all Nazis whose paranoia is as prominent as their menace.
The film begins with a wandering voiceover about the glories of the FBI and its importance during the war before the narrator seemingly gets sidetracked by a Third Man-forecasting pedestrian accident. A man is hit by a car and crashes to his death on the pavement, and another man sprints by and nabs his suitcase. For the rest of the film, the disembodied voice unemotionally lays out the intricacies of “the Christopher Case,” never acknowledging the surrealism of the way he introduces the topic as though it’s one of many examples and then fails to introduce any others, another element later seen in The Third Man. The two films have little else in common, but one subsequent landmark that may owe a thing or two to 92nd Street is Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, a tense and slightly deadpan thriller about human beings attempting perfection in a racetrack robbery that goes almost hilariously awry. In that film, the equally calm and dispassionate narration is necessary to help the many chronological jumps from becoming incoherent. Here, its major purpose is to blur the distinction between real life and the movies.
That’s a common conceit of good suspense films, certainly Hitchcock’s, but The House on 92nd Street is at a distinct advantage that none of the Master’s except The Wrong Man can claim: terrifying reality. Though it changes numerous details of its real-life story, the tight screenplay by Charles Booth, Barré Lyndon and John Monks — which smartly saves its most fantastic flourishes for the final minutes — is embellished by documentary footage integrated seamlessly with the main story. So this is docu-noir: a reasonably accurate reenactment interspersed with actual security footage of Nazi agents wandering around D.C. and New York, FBI staffers hard at work, and spy maneuvers in progress. The dramatization doesn’t drag the real-world elements down, or vice versa, thanks to the clever casting of mostly-unknowns in the narrative sequences. This allows a genuinely nail-biting thriller to double as a quite fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the FBI during WWII, the secrecy and importance attached to the atom bomb, and more than anything the confusion and moral ambiguity inherent to espionage itself.
Bill Dietrich, though not exactly an agent himself, fits the mold of the classic movie G-man. He is cool under pressure and all of our sense of the danger he’s in is predicated on the emotions of the villains, not the hero, a rather interesting conceit. Throughout the film there is a constant threat that his true identity is about to be discovered by the German agents insulating him as he operates a pirate radio station fending off crucial encoded information from Germany to America and back. The hotheadedness of Dietrich’s Nazi contacts is the only note of human emotion and desperation in the film, which is perhaps appropriate. That’s not why the film is perversely an absolute joy to watch, especially so many years removed from its headline status; it’s just a consequence of the way its deadly-serious attention to detail manages to make its economical, streamlined storytelling — packed almost cruelly into a beautifully lean 87 minutes — so engrossing despite its relative detachment from its human occupants. If anything, as in The Killing, the faltering and emotional malleability of humans is shown in some respect to be their undoing. A cynical view indeed, but that’s noir.
And not all noirs are as accessible and smart as this one; in fact, it may be one of the best introductions to the genre, certainly more immediately appealing to a modern audience raised on “reality” crime than Laura or Out of the Past. It is enhanced immeasurably, however, by its tense climax, by which time its grip on the story has lessened as its Nazi agents have become wise to what’s really been happening under their noses. Then comes the chaos, revisiting the foggy-smoky-teargas of Underworld, when it’s so dark and smogged-over you don’t even know what you’re seeing exactly; then also comes, out of nowhere, one of the sexiest moments in all film noir, when Signe Hasso’s Elsa, well, transforms and the forbidden androgynous underbelly of Hollywood swoons. One could wax endlessly about the maddening intensity and shock of that moment, but the film moves so fast it barely even seems to give it a second thought.
This is surely in the top heap of propaganda thrillers, ahead even of Hitchcock’s Saboteur and Powell’s 49th Parallel. Unlike so many films made during the war, this one is actively playful in terms of both plot and audience expectations — and its sense of justice and righteousness is enhanced because by the time of its release, audiences knew of the level of cruelty being fought against by the Feds in the context of the story here. No amount of adorably stilted Dragnet-like voiceover can dilute that sense of barely-contained outrage behind the American characters’ devotion and sense of duty, and no “righteousness” can dilute the perfectly realized moral strangeness of how easily we sense that the German agents are just as devoted, just as patriotic. But mostly, for anyone interested in the period or in noir or in the flavor of those times as captured by Hollywood, this is the kind of movie that reminds you why watching old movies is so endlessly fun and rewarding. See it and get lost in it.