Spy 100, #49: The House on 92nd Street

A dated but breezily entertaining mix of history and suspense, The House on 92nd Street (1945) is an  enjoyable black-and-white oldie, ranked too highly on the list, perhaps, but worthy of inclusion. A noirish docudrama, this one lurches in and out of portentous newsreel narration as it reenacts the story of William Dietrich, a brave German-American student who collaborated with the FBI to protect US atomic secrets from German intelligence during World War II.

When Dietrich (William Eythe) is recruited to spy for the Germans in 1939, he patriotically reports the approach to the FBI, who promptly turn him back against Germany as a double agent. Dietrich trains in Hamburg, then returns to the States with orders to make contact with numerous German agents. The timing couldn’t be better for FBI agent Briggs (Lloyd Nolan), who’s been tasked with identifying a German spymaster known only as Mr. Christopher. By shrewdly tampering with Dietrich’s orders, Briggs puts Dietrich in a position to identify a vast German network in New York, starting at the 92nd Street home of dressmaker Elsa Gebhardt (Signe Hasso). When the US enters the war, the FBI leaves just enough known German agents loose to allow Dietrich to continue misleading them into revealing their sources and funneling their intelligence through him. His efforts are crucial to preventing the Germans from stealing highly classified atomic secrets, but not before placing him in grave personal danger.

The film opens like a brisk Sousa march, its early stages given over to expository narration of events, combining stock footage with documentary-style shots of FBI agents at work. This section is both historically illuminating and cheesily amusing, an overblown love letter to the steadfast spy-hunting prowess of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (who oversaw the film’s production, rather too indulgently). Back-slapping patriotic fervor aside, it’s interesting stuff, going into detail about the machinery of FBI intelligence-gathering and counterespionage. The tradecraft on display is modest and realistic, conveying a decent idea of the kind of legwork that went into combating German spies on American soil during the war.

It isn’t until later that the film’s documentary feel is replaced by heavier dramatization. Stock footage gives way to engaging, noir  skulking as Dietrich’s mission gains traction. There’s all manner of enjoyable enemy treachery in the German network: Hasso’s gorgeous, icy Elsa; the intelligent villainy of the ever-erudite Leo G. Carroll as Colonel Hammersohn; the brutal, suspicious Johanna Schmidt (Lydia St. Clair); and the simpering traitor Charles Ogden Roper (Gene Lockhart). The narration eventually drops out, allowing Eythe’s poker-faced interactions with these increasingly suspicious German agents to carry the action. It culminates in a neatly executed and exciting finale…but then the sonorous narration returns to cap things off with another egregious pat on the back for J. Edgar Hoover.

Despite feeling a little like two entirely different movies forced to mate at gunpoint, The House on 92nd Streets is an unconventionally entertaining watch.

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