(director: Henry Hathaway; screenwriters: based on the story by Charles Booth/Charles G. Booth/Barré Lyndon/John Monks, Jr.; cinematographer: Norbert F. Brodin; editor: Harmon Jones; music: David Buttolph; cast: William Eythe (Bill Dietrich), Lloyd Nolan (Agent George A. Briggs), Signe Hasso (Elsa Gebhardt), Gene Lockhart (Charles Ogden Roper), Leo G. Carroll (Col. Hammersohn), Lydia St. Clair (Johanna Schmidt), William Post Jr. (Walker), Harry Bellaver (Max Cobura), Bruno Wick (Adolphe Lange), Harro Meller (Conrad Arnulf), Charles Wagenheim (Gus Huzmann), Alfred Linder (Adolph Kline), Renee Carson (Luise Vadja); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Louis de Rochemont; 20th Century Fox; 1945)

“Provides a somewhat accurate historical framework for the period.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Henry Hathaway’s wartime spy film is shot in a semidocumentary style, mixing a conventional fictional story with a documentary one, and features an on-location realism that influenced films such as The Naked City and T-Men. Hathaway based the film on a number of actual F.B.I. cases, and used a cast of many nonprofessional actors including some F.B.I. personnel. Louis de Rochemont is the producer, who is best known for the “March of Time” newsreels in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and therefore it’s easy to see why newsreel footage were so successfully inter-meshed with the storytelling. The 20th Century Fox studio made a deal with the F.B.I. to plug their efficiency and received in return their full cooperation during the shoot, even the use of head honcho J. Edgar Hoover to open the film with a short monologue reassuring the viewers that spies can’t get away with stealing the secrets of the atom bomb.

Despite its flat tone, for the most part uninspiring acting, stereotyped menacing Nazi villains, mainly propaganda motives, and once cutting edge technology that is now old hat, the film is exciting enough and provides a somewhat accurate historical framework for the period. The F.B.I. spy hardware used were such novelty things back then as hidden cameras, two-way mirrors, a mind-blowing fingerprint data base, and sophisticated lab equipment that can trace a lipstick stain on a cigarette to a beauty salon. These scientific sleuthing operations, now commonplace, will not appeal to the modern audience in the same way it did to an audience that saw it wide-eyed on its theater release in the once fabulous Roxy theater in NYC (my parents saw it there).

A brilliant German-American college student, Bill Dietrich (William Eythe), from the Midwest, is recruited by the Nazis to be a spy but instead informs the F.B.I. of the recruitment attempt. He becomes a double agent and is soon working undercover dealing with the Nazis attempt to start a “fifth column” in New York. At the outbreak of WW11, Dietrich uncovers that a German spy ring is operating out of a house on 92nd Street and is stealing top secret information on the A-bomb project (here called “Process 97”) and sending it to Germany. The undercover agent seeks to discover who the security-cleared traitor is and who is the unseen leader of the group, going by the name of Mr. Christopher, who gives the marching orders. After getting accepted by the suspicious leader in the house, Elsa Gebhardt (Signe Hasso), Dietrich becomes vital to the spy ring because he has a short-wave radio that can reach Hamburg quicker than any other way. Dietrich’s F.B.I. contact is Inspector Briggs (Lloyd Nolan), whose team alters Dietrich’s info sent to Germany thereby making it useless. After they arrest the nuclear plant worker passing on the secrets, they will rescue the tortured Dietrich from the ruthless Nazis who are about to kill him in their creepy house on 92nd Street. In a surprising way, they learn who Mr. Christopher is during this rescue. In the conclusion, a serious voiced narrator tells us that over 16,000 spies were caught during the war and no spy got away with giving vital info to the Nazis.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

The censorship of the time period dictated that a man cannot impersonate a woman, so they used a woman instead for the role of the transvestite spy ring leader.