Henry Hathaway’s The House on 92nd Street is an exercise in what’s widely called the semi-documentary style, which has earned in comparisons to Jules Dassin’s 1948 noir The Naked City. As such an exercise, this 1945 movie builds substantial interest. As a film noir, it’s a tougher sell.
The House on 92nd Street sometimes turns up in film noir boxsets and is generally associated with the genre, even if it doesn’t necessarily seem to fit the bill. It’s mostly an espionage yarn, but Norbert Brodine’s cinematography lends it a sinister aesthetic and the real connections to double-meanings and spies and dark figures hint at doom and gloom.
After an introduction that clarifies that The House on 92nd Street was made with the “full cooperation of the FBI,” the picture gets underway with the tale of university student Bill Dietrich (William Eythe). He’s been approached by the Germans to operate as a Nazi spy, but the good American kid takes things to the FBI instead and is set up as a double agent.
Dietrich jumps into Hamburg and gets set up as a German agent. He’s sent back to the States and is given his credentials. He meets fellow agents, including his contact Elsa Gebhardt (Signe Hasso), and passes info to the Americans. Things escalate when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.
Hathaway’s primary interest is in telling the story of the FBI and how they assisted the war effort against the Germans. The introduction notes the range of agency operations, even before America officially entered World War II, and demarcates the “crucial role” played by thousands of agents in spying on the Germans as they worked to recruit American citizens.
The House on 92nd Street purports to tell a story that finally reveals what the FBI was up to in the war and that gives it a “how did they do that?” quality that can feel very dated. As a historical document, it can be interesting to look at the reams of fingerprint files that enable agents to locate a match “within five minutes.”
But beyond revealing trivia and paying homage to the FBI, there’s not a lot to The House on 92nd Street. The breadth of the narrative, a necessity due to the international chess game at play, lacks emotional quality. Given that the film is less about the spy and more about what the spy does, ritual blandness is an expected feature.
That’s not to say that Hathaway’s motion picture is boring by stipulation, but it kind of pins itself down. By not focusing on relationships or on how it might feel to participate in such espionage as an American student, the screenplay by Barré Lyndon, Jack Moffitt and John Monks Jr. is dour and lukewarm.
Eythe plays the good ol’ American kid down the middle, with nary a glance at how nervous he might be while infiltrating hard German agents and never a sidelong glance at Elsa. Lloyd Nolan’s Agent Briggs is likewise all business, quizzing people with a salvo of droning questions like a premature Jack Webb.
The House on 92nd Street is not without historic charm, but it’s hard to justify calling it a film noir if one is intent on conventionalism. Those seeking the murky thrills of noir will find disappointment in Hathaway’s picture, as will those in the hunt for marked intrigue. But it does illustrate how credentials can be concealed in a watch, so that’s something.