A stentorian narrator tells us that the USA was flooded with Nazi spies in 1939-41. One such tries to recruit college grad Bill Dietrich, who becomes a double agent for the FBI. While Bill trains in Hamburg, a street-accident victim proves to have been spying on atom-bomb secrets; conveniently, Dietrich is assigned to the New York spy ring stealing these secrets. Can he track down the mysterious "Christopher" before his ruthless associates unmask and kill him?
The House on 92nd Street has solid claims to a place in film history, and not just as an engrossing true-life counter-espionage movie. Its working title was "Now It Can Be Told," and its story--about the F.B.I. smashing a Nazi spy ring in New York--involved the stealing of atomic secrets. That surely upped the topical ante for 1945 audiences (who, we may assume, had a lot less ambivalent feelings about the F.B.I. than latterday viewers).
Of more lasting significance, the movie pioneered a salutary postwar trend in American filmmaking: forsaking the Hollywood soundstages and back lot to tap the freshness and palpable authenticity of real-world locations. Shot mostly in New York City, House was a collaboration between 20th CenturyFox and Louis de Rochement, the documentary producer renowned for his "March of Time" newsreels. The working formula of House and its successors was to fully incorporate documentary techniques into the storytelling, and to "film where it actually happened." That included using some nonprofessional performers, sometimes people who had been involved in the case. Fox went on to embrace this aesthetic in not only the de Rochementproduced 13 Rue Madeleine and Boomerang! but also the gangster movie Kiss of Death, the journalistic detective story Call Northside 777, and another F.B.I. case history, Street With No Name. Even the storybook fantasy of the studio's 1947 Miracle on 34th Street was charmingly validated by setting Kris Kringle down amid real New Yorkers and real Gotham grittiness.
Noiristes should stand advised that House on 92nd Street, a key influence on film noir, is not quite a true noir itself (whereas Anthony Mann's T-Men is noir to the max). Even as a German-American double agent, hero William Eythe is unburdened by neurosis or doubt, and the stylistic keynote is documentary gray, not black--though a murder in a railroad yard and the final showdown are memorably stark and dark. --Richard T. Jameson