The House on 92nd Street is one of those films remembered more for historical than artistic reasons. A moderately engaging police procedural, it is one of a handful of films that mark a major turning point in Hollywood film making. I stress Hollywood film making because Street’s modest innovations are noteworthy really only for American cinema.
What it offers is a shift to shooting principle photography on location instead of in a studio. That may seem trivial today, but in the late 1940s it was revolutionary because it undermined established practice and technical expectations. The shift resulted in part from the influence of Italian Neorealism. Neorealist filmmakers took to the late Fascist-era streets to give their films a documentary-like vitality that the manicured, studio-bound “white telephone movies” of Italian (and Hollywood) studio film making could not equal.
It was perhaps inevitable that in adapting these techniques to American circumstances, the emphasis shifted from quotidian stories to crime fiction that could dwell in the underbelly of an otherwise optimistic, ordered society. Street goes one step further in attributing the malfeasance to the work of Nazi fifth-columnists. Thus, in taking the cameras into the streets of New York, producer Louis de Rochemont and director Henry Hathaway made the commercially astute choice of neutering Neorealism’s social criticism to focus on easy villains.
Nonetheless, shooting on the streets still introduced new complexities and opportunities. The location photography provides some archaeological interest, for example. The fact that the secondary parts were filled by non-actors, often operating in real spaces, also gives a sense of how Americans in the 1940s dressed, moved and interacted, an impression made the more convincing for its frequent awkwardness.
So when undercover agent Bill Dietrich (William Eythe) rings the doorbell of the villain’s brownstone on 92nd Street, the urban reality registers with all its lively distractions. Once he is inside, however, a designed, carefully lit studio set returns us to ersatz perfection. While the film is supposedly based on an actual case, the fact that the chief Nazi operates a fashion house provides a convenient excuse for the richer, stylized settings that distinguish commercial film. Moreover, even if the real spies operated out of a boutique, it seems unlikely they would have been able to spruce things up as nicely as a crew of Hollywood professionals.
Street is, in other words, another example of Hollywood freshening up stale conventions with stylistic borrowings from more innovative national cinemas. (The surprise ending, for example, is sheer melodramatic flourish, spiced with kink.) To be sure, one of the most famous Neorealist films, Rossellini’s Open City, boasts plenty of thin-lipped Nazi baddies. The difference lies in the Italians’ effort to show life as it is, in however flawed a fashion, so that Open City is still remembered as a major achievement. In giving a traditional genre story a new coat of paint, The House on 92nd Street warrants little more than a footnote.