When it’s on: Tuesday, 19 June (11.00 am)
Henry Hathaway’s 1945 film, The House on 92nd Street, plays like an extended love letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Made in a faux documentary style, it was produced with the full co-operation of the FBI, opening with a shot of none other than J Edgar Hoover at his desk of work. There are also some impressive camera work showing agents going about their business, including one scene that takes place in a vast chamber, filled with antlike people engaged in identification duties.
The message is clear – the FBI is all knowing and all powerful, but luckily it’s on our side and works to protect us. Nevertheless, watched years later there’s a definite creepiness about the amount of data it’s gathered, the way its agents can put together a suspect’s life story almost as soon as he comes under scrutiny. Whilst presented as an essentially benevolent organisation, the FBI comes across as an authority with rather too much power.
Clearly, the Nazis never stood a chance. It’s suggested that long before war between Germany and the USA even broke out, the FBI was effectively waging a covert offensive against potential enemy agents, identifying and tracking anyone who fell under its watchful eye. It even had the capacity to develop its own double agents. One such is the hero of this film, William Dietrich (William Eythe), a smart and good looking student with German roots who, like any good American, goes to the FBI as soon as he’s approached by talent spotters from the Fatherland. Before long, ‘Bill’ is working deep cover, pretending to send covert messages to Hamburg on behalf of the unknown ‘Mr Christopher’ but instead relaying them to an intelligence unit, which acts as go-betweens for Bill and Nazi Germany. Over time, it emerges that Bill is being asked to transmit details of ‘Process 97′, a top secret American defence project that is, of course, the atomic bomb. But how’s Mr Christopher getting the data? What’s known and what isn’t within the German agents’ base, inside the House on 92nd Street, New York City? This forms the basis of the investigation led by G-Man George A Briggs (Lloyd Nolan) as the FBI slowly closes its grip on the house’s activities.
Reed Hadley’s authoritative narration keeps the pot boiling as Briggs gathers evidence and Bill maintains his cover. The latter’s carrying false credentials on microfilm, which inform the Nazis he is authorised to meet and deal with any of their agents. The fact he’s come from nowhere puts him under suspicion from the start, and clearly once the truth emerges (in a masterly early scene, the FBI swaps Bill’s microfilm from the Germans with its doctored version; the Germans’ plan was for him to contact nobody important) he’s going to be in a lot of trouble with the people who have ways of making him talk, but thanks to his status he gets to meet various agents. These include dapper Leo G Carroll and swarthy Alfred Linder. But despite the enemy’s elaborate attempts to feed their information to the Fatherland, the FBI’s always one step ahead. Project 97’s safety is never in doubt. Bill’s is less certain.
Charles G Booth won an Oscar for his original screenplay, which deserves praise for keeping a deeply layered story moving and managing to crank up the suspense without such traditional elements as a love interest for the hero. Its golden portrayal of the FBI can’t help but leave a sour taste, yet the intelligence agency was deliberately painted as heroic in an era of propaganda movies and stood for the American will. More important is the style. The House on 92nd Street was produced by Louis De Rochemont, co-creator of the landmark The March of Time newsreel series, and it’s within this sensibility of storytelling that the film was put together as though recounting a series of true events. Its mark remains on any number of police thrillers made since then, adding authenticity (however contrived) and realism over melodrama and artifice.
The House on 92nd Street: ***