Henry Hathaway’s 1945 film The House on 92nd Street for 20th Century Fox was the first of the documentary-noirs that presaged the gritty realism of Jules Dassin’s The Naked City in 1948.
Although the story of the FBI’s breaking-up of a Nazi spy-ring isn’t strictly noir, it has all the elements of the police-procedural that ushered in a shift in the classic noir cycle from the early 1950s: documentary footage with a news-reel feel, stentorian narration, and a rousing musical score. All elements driven towards the portrayal of a great US institution “implacably” committed to the defense of American freedoms and the destruction of internal threats.
Based on a true case, the producer had full access to FBI surveillance footage and to FBI establishments and staff, and the opening scenes feature J. Edgar Hoover working at his desk. Wisely director Hathaway chose to shoot in actual New York City locales, and his DP Norbert Brodine delivered NY in compelling deep focus. Interesting also is the highlighting of then cutting-edge technology used in the pursuit of the spies: including a punch-card reading computer finding a finger-print match, and spectrography enlisted to identify the brand of lipstick found in a suspect’s ashtray. The whole affair balances real drama with a solemn purpose that has you engrossed.
What I found particularly fascinating was the adroit expressionism of the tense finale, which is clearly evident in the following frames from the movie. You sometimes find art in the strangest places.
2 thoughts on “The House on 92nd Street (1945): Real Drama with a Solemn Purpose”
Norbert Brodine’s work here was striking, but Hathaway has always hooked up with gifted cinematographers (I well remember for example the superb visual collaboration with Joseph MacDonald on NIAGARA and CALL NORTHSIDE 777 and another with Brodine, KISS OF DEATH, but yes this early appearance of the gritty realism most now associate with Dassin, did get the Hollywood jump start years before. This shimmering and shadowy, crystal clear screen caps are among the most pristine I’ve ever seen online, and I can onlt marvel yet again at your technical expertise in getting them to look this way. I know this film well, have seen it several times, and like you am struck by the compelling expressionistic visual scheme. The film’s realism is accentuated by the location shooting and the connecting the locales have to the story. I had indeed read that the FBI allowed the filmmakers some freedom, which is another element of persuasiveness in this mix.
THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET isn’t universally admired, as at least a few derided the goody-goody aspect and refer to it as pedantic, and technologically dated. But the last reservation is hardly a flaw, as it could just as ably applied to any other film made in past decades. It’s a non-point as far as I’m concerned.
But most see it as a minor-classic, and Bridges and Hasson are terrific, and some bit actors who hailed from NYC are memorable.
Even with your original and fascinating seques into various aspects of noir encased in literary, poetical, thematic and contemporary conscriptions, it’s always great to have one of your buffo conventional reviews!
Yes, but the House was on 93rd Street?
I lived right around the corner, and know the building very well.