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Thursday, 18 April 2013

Classic Film Review: The House on 92nd Street (1945)

The House on 92nd Street is based on a true story of a Nazi spy ring smashed by the FBI in the early 1940s. How loosely based the story is, I'm not sure, but the film presents itself as fact in an almost-documentary style. Adding to this illusion, many of the smaller roles were played by real-life FBI operatives. The case is this: graduate Bill Dietrich (William Eythe) is recruited by the Nazis but instead becomes a double agent for the FBI. He is assigned to be the go-between for Hamburg and a spy ring stealing secrets of a process involved in the atomic bomb. However, his identity is always under question and his attempts to locate the mysterious 'Mr Christopher' are crucial to his survival. Amongst the cast are Lloyd Nolan as Agent George Briggs, Signe Hasso as Elsa Gebhardt and Gene Lockhart as Charles Roper.

The voice-over narration takes a while to set up the story. For the first fifteen minutes the scene is set and, while it's necessary, it does feel too long. In addition, the adoration of the FBI throughout the film is fitting for the era but difficult to stomach as a modern viewer, although it is interesting to see the processes involved in 1940s detection. Once Dietrich is back in the US and working as a duplicitous agent, the pace picks up somewhat. His adventures are interesting but none of the characters - because they're based on real-life individuals - are really three-dimensional. Dietrich's motivations are never made clear, nor are the Nazi spys depicted as anything more than Nazi spies.

There are some moments of high tension, and the central mystery of 'Mr Christopher' is actually intriguing, but while this film is interesting on first viewing because of the propaganda, FBI representation and real-life subject matter, I don't think it would hold interest on a second viewing. It is a fascinating snapshot of American intelligence, though, and for that reason alone it is worth a try.

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