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The House on 92nd Street

Although it's part of the "Fox Film Noir" series, The House on 92nd Street (1945) doesn't really qualify as a full-fledged noir, a point made repeatedly by noir historian Eddie Muller in his accompanying commentary. Employing a documentary style, the thriller spins a based-on-fact tale of the FBI's infiltration of a Nazi spy ring. Made in full cooperation with J. Edgar Hoover, the picture is as much propaganda as entertainment, and it serves as a fascinating time-capsule piece, even when its narrative falters. When the Bureau learns of a German espionage cell operating out of the titular abode, Agent William Dietrich (William Eythe) is sent undercover to join their group. There he meets Elsa Gebhardt (Signe Hasso), the attractive public face of the fifth columnists, as well as her less-pretty cohorts. Intercepting a communication headed for Hamburg, Dietrich's superior George Briggs (Lloyd Nolan) learns that the spies are after the secret of "Process 97," a key component in the creation of the atomic bomb. Dietrich's investigation continues as the G-men seek the identity of the mysterious Mr. Christopher, a figure who turns out to be closer than Dietrich had imagined. While the film's plot is fairly clichéd, it's the documentary aspects of The House on 92nd Street that proved groundbreaking. Director Henry Hathaway and producer Louis de Rochemont incorporated actual FBI surveillance footage, used real FBI agents in secondary roles, and filmed at the actual locations of the story whenever possible. This includes some remarkable newsreel footage of American Nazis marching in formation, and it creates an immediacy rarely found in Hollywood product. It also includes some unfortunate jingoistic remnants of the time of its making, including an opening sequence that could easily be morphed into an advertisement for the Patriot Act, and a disturbing (but historical) order which goes out to round up all Germans and Japanese following the attack on Pearl Harbor. In his informative commentary, Muller discusses de Rochemont's role as the film's true auteur; as the creator of the March of Time newsreels, he incorporated their style into a number of postwar thriller with street names in their titles. Muller also explains the real cases the film is based on, including the fact that the double agent was in reality a German citizen. Most fascinating, though, are his comments on the difficulties of the influential location filming, which included using anonymous actors to avoid public disruption, breaking in new and lightweight sound equipment, and borrowing FBI surveillance vans in which to hide the massive studio cameras. Fox's DVD release of The House on 92nd Street features a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with the original monaural audio on a DD 2.0 track. The disc also includes a photo gallery, and a replica of the original press booklet with a handy zoom feature. Keep-case.
—Marc Mohan

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