What did you watch: The House on 92nd Street
The 2nd World War just ended, what’s the best way to relax? Watching a G-man procedural about espionage.
Like Walk A Crooked Mile, the best way to kill the suspense of a suspenseful movie with high stakes FOR OUR VERY FREEDOM! is to have a dry narrator dryly narrate what you’re watching. Like, SPOILER, Edgar J. Hoover says everything’s going to be okay. Moreso in The House on 92nd Street, for a few reasons: A. Footage of notorious FBI honcho Edgar J. Hoover starts off the movie. B. There’s just so much information dumped that to actually have dialog would take up MORE time and this is long before the Avengers movies, friends. Theaters didn’t have time or space for all the reels needed to tell this story, because C. this is based on a real spy ring and how it was broken up with the assistance of a man targeted by the German Nazis to wreak havoc on America.
Bill Dietrich is trained by Nazi Germany to head to America and be a point person to pay off other spies. The dry narration tells us right off the bat he starts sharing this info with the FBI, and I would have loved this scene. I actually rewound it to see if I missed it. It’s in the narration, after several montages of the movie telling us about actual spies (actual FBI surveillance footage?), and that’s where this movie becomes a boring mess. Like that’s how he’s introduced, in a montage. So this movie is not really about anything, other than how great it is that America had a net to capture Nazi spies (it is great, by the way). He’s just a small piece of the puzzle as the FBI tries to figure out who a “Mister Christopher” that the Nazi activities circle around. Maybe that’s what moviegoers of 1945 needed, rotating scenes around stock footage and then cutting to occasional actors interacting with the dry narration that you forget about Bill Dietrich. Hey, bigger picture here: stopping Nazi saboteurs, right? It’s not until 15 minutes before Bill is in Germany getting orders from the Nazis.
There’s some interesting things revolving around the how-to’s of setting up a 2 way mirror in Bill’s office and nabbing spies, and just how layered the levels of surveillance both sides were in keeping tabs of who was coming and going in Bill’s world, including Bill himself. A lot of spies are nabbed and the core group that Bill has fooled gets more desperate, wondering if it’s worth protecting “Mister Christopher” and sacrificing themselves for the Third Reich…well, again, this stuff could have been developed more, but because it’s more about the how-to instead of the one guy who has to balance being a double agent and hoping that the Nazis don’t catch on. Frankly, how do they NOT catch on that everything goes through him and then everyone gets nabbed? Well, the G-men get closer and closer to the Nazi cabal and the spies are told to lay down their lives for “Mister Christopher.”
I’ll give the movie this: stick with it and there’s an explosive ending that makes all the boring narration worth it. The FBI raid on the final group of spies just figuring out who Bill Dietrich is really loyal to ends in dramatic smoke and gunfire that I haven’t seen in similar action beats. I’ve watched a lot of these mobster and noir films, with shootouts, but not with a blast that puts the film into a shellshock haze. Otherwise, the dryness and big picture focus makes me pine for a documentary the actual spy saga this story is based on (which I’m not finding). There’s a sequel, following the FBI characters, called “The Street With No Name,” that came out a few years later.
I am sure some people enjoy procedurals like this and sometimes I do, but even without a narrator killing the suspense or piecing the events together for us, they don’t stand up, either because the actual story is more compelling, they’ve embellished the event to add action scenes that never happened, or because the narrative doesn’t focus on a character arc. When you watch a movie, even when Stuff Happens, is it worth sitting through it if you can’t tell: who’s story is this? I’d like to have seen’s Bill’s story from the beginning.