Monday, January 04, 2010

"The House on 92nd Street" (1945) is a shocking story of homeland espionage that kept the atomic secrets from the Nazis


A film that should be watched as a historical companion to “Notorious” (reviewed her earlier) is Henry Hathaway’s “The House on 92nd Street”, made in 1945 by 20th Century Fox right after V-J day and the use of the atomic bomb by President Truman.

In the time frame from 1939 to Pearl Harbor, Nazi spies worked in New York City and were penetrated by the F.B.I. with the help of a recent college graduate of German ancestry who was recruited to act as a double agent, Bill Dietrich (William Eythe). The FBI was closing on an operation that tried to sift American research (Project 97) on the use of uranium that had gone back to the 1930s. The Germans had a brownstone on 92nd St run partly by a woman who turns out to be a cross dresser.

The film, in crisp black and white, provides a fascinating look at technology in the 40s, and it was more advanced than we think. The FBI used one-way “mirrors” of lead glass, and photographed what they saw directly onto 8 mm movies. Instead of taping, they would cut phonograph records directly from wiretapped conversations. They could sift through 100 million fingerprints with a complex set of gadgets in a huge warehouse facility and identify any print in about half an hour. The “woman” is tracked down from the lipstick on a cigarette butt she leaves behind carelessly, leading the FBI to check the customer records of 92 NYC beauty parlors.

The film runs as a docudrama, with some narration but a lot of scenes acted.

One interesting point is that many spies and intelligence agents lead double lives with "ordinary jobs" such that even their own families and spouses don't know that they work as spies.

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