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The House on 92nd Street

The House on 92nd Street

1945, 20th Century-Fox. Directed by Henry Hathaway. With Lloyd Nolan, Signe Hasso, William Eythe.


This "semi-documentary" about the FBI breaking up a Nazi spy ring is the last place you'd expect to find self-conscious references to filmmaking and performance. But big chunks of exposition take place in screening rooms; we get numerous shots of cameras whirring behind two-way mirrors; and the character at the center of the story is a double agent, and consequently a performer.

What's odd is that all this self-referentiality seems designed not to point out the artificiality of things filmed, but to prove their verisimilitude.

The movie's producer was Louis de Rochemont, a one-time newsreel photographer who co-created the "March of Time" series and made documentaries during World War II. After the war he turned to fictionalized recreations of true-life stories, shot on location, usually with the cooperation of some fawned-over government agency. This one shamelessly promotes the FBI. There are the obligatory shots of the FBI building in Washington, J. Edgar Hoover at his desk, the lab, the vast files. Except for the featured players, a title tells us, all FBI personnel are the genuine article (as we could have guessed from their wooden line readings). This movie started the trend that also included Boomerang and Call Northside 777.

The House of 92nd Street begins and ends with actual newsreel footage of "Nazi fifth-columnists" being marched into American courts and jails. In between, we see what is purportedly a minimally-fictionalized story about how a group of these spies tried to steal "Process 97" from the "Central Laboratory," but were foiled by G-men. We follow both the spies, hatching plots and yelling at one another, and the FBI men who are on their trail. As the case proceeds, we learn about microfilm, encryption, forgeries and counter-forgeries, secret drop-offs and code words, and even the FBI's collection of "every known brand of lip-stick" ("Personally overseen by J. Edgar Hoover," my husband said).

But mostly we learn about the FBI's ubiquitous cinematography. As bad guys plot, the FBI is always in the next room, in a building across the street, in a van outside, filming away. Whatever or whoever needs to be researched, the FBI has footage of it, which the agents screen and comment on in Citizen Kane-inspired sequences.

All this filming serves to explain how the makers of The House of 92nd Street can know so much about the real events that they claim to have "recreated." It flattens the distance between the staged and the non-nstaged sequences. It defuses the suspicion that this is made-up "art" like the movies we are used to, and instead insists on film as a recorder of actuality. The revelation of most self-referential movies—that someone caused all this to happen—here turns into the opposite: Things happened, and someone happened to be around to take movies of it.

The cast of generally unattractive unknowns helps give the impression of reality, though director Hathaway curiously chose to use the familiar character actors Leo G. Carroll and Gene Lockhart as two of the spies.

(3/29/1998)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein