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Preface: 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? Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The "House on 92nd Street" used in the film was actually located on 93rd Street. The building is still standing. See more »
When the agents are preparing to do the first survey of the house they are wearing CD (Civil Defense) arm bands on their right arms. The next scene shows them approaching the house and the arm bands are now on their left arms. See more »
It really IS a classic of the genre, but the problem is that the genre itself is so dated as not to be taken seriously anymore. That happens to genres. Would you watch a Western in which the good guy wears a white hat and the bad guy wears a black hat and one "calls the other out" and they have a mano-a-mano shootout in the middle of the dusty street and the good guy wins and gets the girl? I mean, that's asking a lot of a modern audience.
This film was one of a series of semi-documentaries that came out with the end of the war. Often, as here, Henry Hathaway was the director and the stentorian baritone Reed Hadley was the narrator. I can't vouch for the historical accuracy of the plot, although regardless of the facts I'm sure J. Edgar Hoover was tickled pink when he saw it. Hoover, President-for-Life of the FBI, was a media savvy character. Early in his career he had a skilled partner in Melvin Purvis, the guy who tracked down Dillinger. Such rivalry was not to be tolerated. Purvis's part in the affair, in fact his whole persona, was purged like Akhenaten's until Hoover became the hero. Purvis quit in disgust. Hoover refused to cooperate with Warner's "G-Men" because Jimmy Cagney patronized a saloon, but he gave the FBI's all to this film because the FBI was morally upright and flawless.
One scene was of particular interest. A real Nazi spy insists on testing the American counterspy's radio set to see if it can actually reach Hamburg. It doesn't. It transmits directly to a nearby FBI station which then relays the information to Germany, in a slightly altered form. The FBI operator hears the Nazi calling. He looks up and says, "That isn't Bill. I know his fist." A "fist" is the particular style that an individual operator uses in sending Morse code. It's about as distinctive as his handwriting. I was a radio operator for a few years in the Coast Guard and had a great fist. Most of the other men at my station set their keys to automatic "fast" so they could sound hot. Only they overreached and wound up sounding jagged and making a lot of errors. I set mine to "slow" and developed a fist that was easy to read and pleasing to listen to in its rhythmic splendor. Two radiomen from a ship visited the station in dress blues one afternoon and asked who "LL" was -- my sign-off letters. They came over to my console and one said, "We just wanted to tell you that it's a pleasure to copy you." The two men shook my hand, the three of us blushed, and they made a hurried exit, because real men don't say things like that to one another.
I dislike boasts but there are so few things I do well. Oh, yes, the movie. Alas,the conventions of the genre demand that the Nazis be evil in every respect. Worse than that, they're rude. When the American counterspy is introduced to them, they don't even greet him, they just scowl. None of them is in love, none of them has a home, none has a dog or a cat or collects stamps. They sacrifice one another for the cause at the drop of a solecism and -- well, you get the picture. Compare the Nazi spies in Hitchcock's "Notorious."
The conventions doom the characters as human beings. Loyd Nolan and Signe Hasso are the most watchable, but all of the performances are colorless. Even the hero is dull, despite the danger he often finds himself in.
It's still an interesting and exciting flick, once you adapt to its weaknesses. Fascinating to see the way in which two-way mirrors are presented as the high-tech novelty they were at the time. And the pre-computer FBI's fingerprint storage -- "Five THOUSAND fingerprints on file!", Hadley announces proudly.
It's worth catching if it is convenient.
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