Thursday, July 18, 2019

The House on 92nd Street (1945): The Birth of a Genre

J. Edgar Hoover Stakes His Claim for Winning World War II

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now movieloversreviews.filminspector.com
A scene capture from "The House on 92nd Street" (1945) of the Third Reich flag waving over the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., in 1941 (all screenshots courtesy of  Twentieth Century Fox).
"The House on 92nd Street" (1945), directed by Henry Hathaway, is an overlooked gem. While its overall theme serves as a typical World War II propaganda film, it actually had an outsized impact on many films that followed. It heavily influenced or at least foreshadowed the later police procedurals such as "Dragnet," the Red-scare films of the 1950s, and even the James Bond film series.

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now movieloversreviews.filminspector.com
With World War II over by barely a week, J. Edgar Hoover stakes his claim to being a big factor in why the Allies won.
It is emphasized at the beginning of the film that "The House on 92nd Street" was made with the full cooperation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In fact, there even is a scene of longtime FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, sitting calmly at his desk as the narrator solemnly intones, "Vigilant. Tireless. Implacable." It is very strongly hinted at two or three points in "The House on 92nd Street" that the espionage involves the Manhattan Project (this film was released barely a week after the Japanese surrender), but when some documents the crooks have stolen are seen, they show organic chemistry diagrams. So, as Alfred Hitchcock would say, we're dealing with a McGuffin here, simply something we are to assume is of vast importance without ever being told directly exactly what it is. Because "The House on 92nd Street" incorporates extensive location shooting of areas of Manhattan that now are interesting to those who enjoy looking into the past of New York City, I've included some "then and now" views of specific locations.

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now movieloversreviews.filminspector.com
The Brooklyn Bridge in "The House on 92nd Street."
Some of these scenes, such as that of the Brooklyn Bridge, above, have little to do with the plot of "The House on 92nd Street." However, they really imbue the film with an almost mystical quality of being in the Manhattan of 1945. It also appears to be a very subtle way of saying, "This is what we are defending and why this FBI work is so important."

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com
Bowling Green in "The House on 92nd Street."
Director Henry Hathaway is better known for later blockbusters such as "True Grit" (1969) and "The Sons of Katie Elder" (1965). However, it isn't often that a film is as influential as "The House on 92nd Street."

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com
Bowling Green recently (Google Street View).
Beginning with a lengthy demonstration of FBI "tricks" such as one-way mirrors and invisible ink that would have been new to contemporary audiences, "The House on 92nd Street" foreshadows the James Bond films that have Bond going to spymaster Q in order to obtain spy gadgets. The heavy focus on FBI methods was expanded on greatly by Jack Webb, who undoubtedly would have seen "The House on 92nd Street," in his "Dragnet" television series and feature films. The heavy use of panoramic vistas of the city in question that typifies "The House on 92nd Street" also was something that Webb used at the beginning of all Dragnet episodes. The 1950s Red Scare films such as "My Son John" (1952) in some ways look almost like remakes of "The House on 92nd Street."

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com

"The House on 92nd Street" was (in the film) the location of a German spy ring in the months before the United States entered World War II. The location (in the film) was just off Madison Avenue on East 92nd Street. This actually was a fictitious location in both the film and in reality.

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com
92nd Street at Madison Avenue recently (Google Street View).
The corner of 92nd and Madison Avenue hasn't changed much over the years. However, the evocative fire escapes of the building on the northeast corner are gone.

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com
Upper floors of the five-story house on 92nd Street shown in the film, which in reality was at 53 East 92nd Street in Manhattan.
The film pans down slowly across the entire building that is the "star" of "The House on 92nd Street" when it is first "introduced." I guess you have to actually show the entire house if you are going to call your film "The House on 92nd Street."

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com
This is the five-story house on 92nd Street shown in the film, which in reality was at 53 East 92nd Street in Manhattan.
The location of the spy ring, disguised as a women's clothing store, was shown in "The House on 92nd Street" only once (aside from incidental views of people entering and leaving the building and so forth). Signe Hasso plays the store's proprietor who actually is an avowed Hitlerite feeding spy information back to Germany. William Eythe plays an American recruited by the Germans to help the spy ring. The film is very loosely based on real-life events.

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com
Here is the hero of the film, William Eythe, standing outside the eponymous house when he first sees it. Note the beautifully wrought iron fence out front. He is emphasizing how tall the building was, though, in fact, it was only of moderate height at five stories.
The building used in "The House on 92nd Street" wasn't actually on 92nd Street at all, but it was close by. In fact, the building shown in the film was exactly one block north at 53 East 92nd Street.

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com
 The spot where the house shown in the film stood is now a pathway to a large building (Google Street View).
Why they changed the location from 92nd Street to 93rd Street or didn't just change the title to, "The House on 93rd Street," isn't clear. However, a quick look on Google Street View now shows that the infamous (because of the film) house on 93rd Street where much of the spy action takes place is long gone. Its spot now serves as a back entrance to Carnegie Hill Tower at 40 East 94th Street. Carnegie Hill Tower was built in 1984, so the five-story house shown in "The House on 92nd Street" has been gone for at least that long.

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com
"The House on 92nd Street shows Columbus Circle, with the Adams Building behind it.
The protagonist of "The House on 92nd Street" has his office just off Columbus Circle in the Adams Building at 59th and Columbus Circle. So, there is a nice establishing shot of Columbus Circle in "The House on 92nd Street." Leo G. Carroll, later famous as the agents in "North By Northwest" and television series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," plays a German spy who visits the Eythe character there. Unknown to him (despite his checking), the FBI has the entire office wired for video and sound.

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com
Columbus Circle recently (Google Street View).
One of the distinguishing features of "The House on 92nd Street" is the fierce role that actresses play in the violent plot. While Signe Hasso has the lead female role (and does it quite well), little-known Lydia St. Clair makes a big impression as a vicious thug who gets to slap and kill with wild abandon. In fact, there is a sort of subplot or at least subtext in "The House on 92nd Street" that these evil aliens intentionally confuse the proper roles of men and women, which is more evidence of their wickedness and mal-formation. That is an interesting thing to ponder 75 years later.

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com

The houses on either side of the eponymous "The House on 92nd Street" are still there and look pretty much exactly as they did then. The same railing that was in front of them remains, though the railing in front of the house for which the film was named was removed whenever that house itself was torn down. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? And those are beautiful, upscale homes which have benefited from the growing desirability of the Upper East Side for the wealthy. The owner probably would have been better off just keeping the house despite its nefarious associations due to "The House on 92nd Street."

The House on 92nd Street scenes then and now randommusings.filminspector.com
The view from in front of the eponymous house of the film toward Madison Avenue, looking west. That is No. 51 East 92nd Street. The same windows and stairway are visible, along with the railing. Basically, the houses on either side of "the house on 92nd Street" are unchanged after 75 years (Google Street View).
So, while the house that "starred" in "The House on 92nd Street is long gone, the area itself on 93rd Street otherwise is little changed. I heartily recommend "The House on 92nd Street," which is quite gripping despite being an obvious propaganda film and which gives terrific views of old Manhattan!

Below is a copy of "The House on 92nd Street" (1945).


2019

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