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The House on 92nd Street

The House on 92nd Street(1945)


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Fresh from wrapping the George Raft costumer Nob Hill (1945), Henry Hathaway was eager to get off the lot at 20th Century Fox and try something new. Hathaway had heard of a new script making the rounds that concerned the Federal Bureau of Investigation and which was to be shot on location in New York. Through studio head Darryl F. Zanuck's assistant Molly Mandaville, Hathaway obtained a copy of the screenplay. Written by pulp novelist Charles G. Booth (with whom Hathaway had collaborated on the Academy Award nominated Sundown [1941]), the tale was a fictionalized account of the smashing of the Duquesne espionage ring , which netted the FBI more than two dozen German agents and American traitors in 1941. The project was to be presented by Louis de Rochemont, creator of the popular March of Time newsreels, and had the endorsement of Bureau head J. Edgar Hoover. Zanuck's aim was to shoot documentary-style, utilizing unknown actors, cost-effective narration, and actual locations. Although he had promised the job to Robert D. Webb (a second unit director for Henry King, who had a background in documentary filmmaking), Zanuck ultimately gave Hathaway the director's chair and raised the projected budget to $400,000. Feeling that the material was a bit dry, Hathaway and scenarist John Monks, Jr. added a greater degree of human interest to the tale, including the film's memorable if highly improbable climactic twist in the tail.

J. Edgar Hoover had a love-hate relationship with motion pictures going back as far as Warners' "G" Men (1935), which fictionalized the birth of the agency as an outgrowth of the United States Department of Justice. Initially Hoover had okayed "G" Men (which gave James Cagney a chance to segue from gangster to good guy roles, pleasing both the actor and the Hays Office) but he withdrew his support upon the film's release; Hoover eventually had a change of heart and in 1949 "G" Men was re-released with wrap-around footage bracketing the production as an FBI training film. Fox's fact-based Roger Touhy, Gangster (1944) had been directed by Robert Florey in documentary style and included actual locations germane to the Touhy case but lost thirty minutes to censorship; intended as a prestige picture for release in 1943, the film was disowned by the FBI and snuck out a year later, after Touhy's exploits had faded from the public memory. A key reason for Hoover's reluctance to stand behind "G" Men and Roger Touhy, Gangster was that neither case reflected well on the Bureau. The pivotal scene of the former, the FBI's raid on the Little Bohemia Lodge, had been a fiasco for the FBI; in the latter, a key witness was later revealed to have committed perjury, resulting in an early release for Touhy. The unparalleled success of the Duquesne case gave Hoover a chance to crow and he threw his full support behind Now It Can Be Told, as The House on 92nd Street (1945) was known through production.

Cobbling together FBI surveillance footage and utilizing Bureau staffers in walk on roles, Hathaway shot guerilla-style on the streets of Manhattan (although he was required by law to obtain release forms from all passersby who happened into the frame). The film begins in newsreel mode with stentorian narration courtesy of Reed Hadley, the voice of the March of Time short subjects. Hollywood contract players Lloyd Nolan (who had played a martyred FBI agent in "G" Men) and William Eythe (scouted from Broadway for roles in The Ox-Bow Incident [1943] and The Eve of St. Mark [1944]) were recruited to play the protagonists while British Leo G. Carroll and Swedish import Signe Hasso brought an icy reserve to their respective roles as a dapper spy and an elegant Nazi sleeper whose front is a high-end dress shop. (Among the cast of unknowns are E. G. Marshall and Vincent Gardenia in their film debuts.) The film's eponymous location was actually on New York's East 93rd Street, an Upper East Side mansion owned by a Manhattan plastic surgeon. It was Zanuck who ordered the title change from Now It Can Be Told to The House on 92nd Street, feeling that the number 92 sounded better than 93 and that the film's lack of star wattage could be mitigated by playing up the mystery angle. Chief among the doubters was Tom Connors, Fox's head of distribution, who opined to Hathaway "How the hell are you going to put Lloyd Nolan in the Roxy?" Perhaps out of wounded pride, Zanuck stood by Hathaway and spearheaded the advertising. At a time when a first weekend gross of $80,000 was considered commendable, The House on 92nd Street enjoyed a $125,000 opening at the Fox-owned Roxy and earned back its production costs in three weeks.

The House on 92nd Street earned an Oscar® for Charles Booth for his original story while John Monks had to content himself with an Edgar Allan Poe award for his contributions (albeit sharing the honor with Booth and screenwriter Barr Lyndon). A belated follow-up, Alfred L. Werker's Walk East on Beacon! (1952), also produced by Louis de Rochemont, focused on Communist spies at work in the United States. The House on 92nd Street influenced a number of crime docu-dramas, including Anthony Mann's T-Men (1947), Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948) and He Walked by Night (1948), codirected by Werker and Mann . Lloyd Nolan reprised the role of implacable G-man George Briggs in Fox's The Street with No Name (1947), directed by William Keighley as a conventional crime drama with Richard Widmark on the sociopathic rebound from his film debut in Hathaway's Kiss of Death (1947).

Groundbreaking and trendsetting as it was in its day, The House on 92nd Street plays a bit differently sixty years after the fact. Despite the journalistic flourishes, the film betrays itself early on as FBI propaganda, fudging the facts and telescoping several true crime events into the fictional "Mr. Christopher Case." (Reed Hadley's end narration boasts of the fierce justice meted out to the convicted spies but in truth the majority of those arrested spent months in prison rather than years and no one connected with the Duquesne Case was executed.) The film's atomic angle - the Third Reich's pursuit of the top secret (but entirely fictive) "Process 97" - was added in postproduction, after the August 6, 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and barely a month before The House on 92nd Street's September 10, 1945 premiere.

Producer: Louis de Rochemont
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Barre Lyndon, Charles G. Booth, John Monks Jr. (screenplay); Charles G. Booth (story)
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Art Direction: Lewis Creber, Lyle Wheeler
Music: David Buttolph
Film Editing: Harmon Jones
Cast: William Eythe (Bill Dietrich), Lloyd Nolan (Agent George A. Briggs), Signe Hasso (Elsa Gebhardt), Gene Lockhart (Charles Ogden Roper), Leo G. Carroll (Col. Hammersohn), Lydia St. Clair (Johanna Schmidt), William Post (Walker), Harry Bellaver (Max Cobura), Bruno Wick (Adolf Lange), Harro Meller (Conrad Arnulf).

by Richard Harland Smith

Henry Hathaway: A Director's Guild of America Oral History by Rudy Behlmer and Henry Hathaway (Scarecrow Press, 2001)
Crime Movies: An Illustrated History by Carlos Clarens (W.W. Norton & Company, 1980)
Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City by Nicholas Christopher (The Free Press, 1997)Changes:

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