The House on 92nd Street (1945) starring William Eythe, Lloyd Nolan, Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, Leo G. Carroll, Lydia St. Clair directed by Henry Hathaway Movie Review

The House on 92nd Street (1945)   2/52/52/52/52/5

William Eythe as Bill Dietrich in The House on 92nd Street (1945)

Eythe is an FBI - Foreign Broadcast Interceptor

To my surprise I found that there was a lot of love for "The House on 92nd Street" one of the first docu-dramas which took the true story of the FBI's investigation into Nazi Fifth Columnists in New York and made it into a movie. I say surprise because whilst the elements of truth, the facts we get spoon-fed by the ever present narration are interesting it doesn't work as a drama. But then "The House on 92nd Street" is a movie from a different era, a movie which for all sense and purposes was a propaganda piece which not only established the work of the FBI in stopping Nazi spies but also made it clear that the FBI were an all seeing powerful force and nothing gets by them. As such I am sure if I was a patriotic American rather than a Brit I would love "The House on 92nd Street" more but as a Brit it falls into that category of movie which is more interesting than entertaining.

Now with "The House on 92nd Street" being an early docu-drama we get a lot of information spoon-fed to us by a narrator and as such in the first 5 minutes all we get is narration about the German embassy in New York, the FBI monitoring it and so on till after what seems an age we meet Bill Dietrich a American with German parents who is tapped up by the Germans to become a spy but first goes to the FBI and works with them to become a double agent on America's side.

Signe Hasso as Elsa Gebhardt in The House on 92nd Street (1945)

What follows on from there is a semi fictionalised story which takes a lot from actual FBI files and turns it into the story of how a spy ring was brought down thanks to Bill who having gone through months of training was involved in it. I say semi fictionalised because elements such as references to Process 97 being part of the research into the Atomic bomb was fictional, with references inserted by director Henry Hathaway as just prior to release the Atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.

The thing about "The House on 92nd Street" other than being first obviously a propaganda piece and secondly very patriotic is that it is interesting but not entertaining. The fact so much of the movie comes from actual files and old footage of the FBI monitoring Germans is incorporated into the movie makes it interesting. Even watching the thousands of staff who work for the FBI track down the identity of a person from a lipstick stain on a cigarette is fascinating. And it does make you appreciate the skill that these people had and the attention detail before computers made life sometimes easier.

But then the actual story of Bill being a double agent in danger, passing messages to the FBI before then sending them on feels almost pedestrian. For me it lacks excitement and atmosphere and so even when it culminates with the suspicious German's suspecting Bill of being a traitor it never really gets your pulse racing. Maybe it was right to be this way because it makes the work of the FBI the focus rather than the cracking of the spy ring but it does make it dull and processional.

Part of the reason for this is that none of the characters, even that of Bill Dietrich, has any depth so all they come across as is pawns. It also means that there is not a single performance be it William Eythe as Bill Dietrich or Signe Hasso as German spy Elsa Gebhardt is memorable and in some cases ends up feeling too much of a stereotype.

What this all boils down to is that "The House on 92nd Street" is interesting with its look at the way FBI cracked a German spy ring back at the end of the 1930s. But it is not the most entertaining of movies and never really captures the element of danger which it needed to so that it was exciting as well as interesting.