How ironic! Judge Paul Corupe used to throw rocks at a house on 92nd when he was younger!
"The FBI's own tense, terrific story behind the protection of the atomic bomb!"
After falling behind on the recent film noir DVD boom, Fox has been playing catch-up with their "Fox Film Noir" line, a slightly misleading imprint that presents a wide variety of shadowy cinema classics from the 1940s. Like the straight up gangster tale The Street with No Name Fox released with the last batch, the inclusion of wartime FBI spy thriller The House on 92nd Street is a little bit questionable in this series, but it does makes for an interesting-if somewhat inessential-choice.
Facts of the Case
FBI investigator George Briggs (Lloyd Nolan, Earthquake) plants double agent radio expert Bill Dietrich (William Eythe, The Ox-Bow Incident) into a German spy ring based out of a small house on 92nd Street in New York City. Relaying coded enemy messages to the Bureau before sending them to Hamburg, Dietrich puts Briggs onto a very puzzling case—the latest data from top secret atomic bomb tests are being harvested by an inside man and transmitted overseas under the guidance of the mysterious German agent Mr. Christopher. Through careful investigative work, the FBI exposes the Nazi lines of communication and tracks down the A-bomb mole, but when Dietrich's true allegiances are discovered by the enemy, Briggs must lead a raid on 92nd Street to save the radio man's life and prevent the loss of precious state secrets.
Based on real case files, The House on 92nd Street is a newsreel-influenced docudrama that purports to reveal how America's valiant G-Men crusaded against the Nazi menace in an all-but-hidden war on the home front. Mixing authentic locations and details with dramatized scenes, it's in many ways the celluloid equivalent of old time radio programs like Gangbusters—a hardboiled "you-are-there" experience for armchair spies, absolutely overflowing with chest-beating FBI boosterism.
Filmed "where it happened" on the Manhattan streets and Bureau offices—often with real FBI agents milling around—The House on 92nd Street surely startled audiences of the 1940s with its perceived authenticity. Not surprisingly, the film's producer Louis De Rochemont was the brilliant mind behind the popular, long-running March of Time newsreel series, and his flair for documentary realism absolutely saturates this film—stark, cinema verité-styled scenes are tied together with deep baritone narration and montages of American agents using science and technology to thwart their foes. In one notable scene, we see genuine FBI surveillance film of suspects at the German Embassy that is seamlessly integrated right into the story. It makes for an intriguing mix of fact and fiction that was extremely influential at the time; before long, elements of the docudrama began to worm their way into many similar films throughout the 1940s and '50s, not to mention later detective TV shows like Dragnet. Several years later, Fox's quasi-sequel The Street with No Name would pick up not only this film's FBI dogma-cloaked narrative style, but also Lloyd Nolan's character of FBI honcho George Briggs, who shows up to show off the Bureau's latest technological achievements.
While there's no denying that The House on 92nd Street was breaking new ground, it still has its share of problems. Beyond the film's few real stars, the relatively inexperienced cast barely squeaks by, with stereotypically clean-cut G-Men and eyebrow-arching, heavily-accented Germans undermining the film's claims to realism. The plot itself is also just fair. There's little doubt that the FBI will succeed in wiping out the Nazi home front scourge and the film fails to hook viewers in with any sense of mystery or suspense, spending most of the narrative showcasing spy-busting scientific breakthroughs like codes hidden on stamps and spectra-analysis machines—cool espionage tools in their own right, but barely enough to sustain a full 90-minute feature.
The print Fox used for this DVD of The House on 92nd Street has its share of artifacts and grain, but it's not too bad. Black levels are extremely lacking, making it difficult to make out some darker scenes. A choice between stereo and mono tracks seems almost gratuitous for this film, but the sound is generally quite nice, with dialogue presented clearly. We get a few extras on this disc, starting with Dark City author Eddie Muller's informative commentary track, which delves deeply into all aspects of the film and placing it within the proper context. A still gallery and a press book gallery fill out the rest of this DVD.
Unfortunately, in today's "reality"-saturated screen entertainment, it's not as easy to appreciate The House on 92nd Street's precedent for authenticity, which is truly the only aspect that sets it apart from other, more run-of-the-mill noir genre product. Watching the film today, it remains historically interesting, but our familiarity with the now-common docudrama presentation forces modern viewers to focus on the painfully average cast and script. Film noir completists will certainly want to add this to their collection, especially for the budget price, but others are advised to wait until the next entries in the "Fox Film Noir" line.
The court finds the defendant guilty of aging badly, and he is to be placed under house arrest at once.
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• Commentary by Eddie Muller
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