When you hear the words “classic film noir,” what do you think of? Hard-boiled dialogue being delivered in dark alleys and smoke-filled rooms? Atmospheric black-and-white cinematography? The unmistakable sense of post-war cynicism and restlessness? The House on Carroll Street is an homage to the classic noir dramas of the '40s and '50s, but the problem is that it borrows the fedoras, cigarettes and tangled-web plotting without really capturing the soul of the films it admires. It doesn't really work as an homage, but the bigger issue is that it doesn't really work as a movie on its own terms.
The story centers on Life magazine photo editor Emily Crane (Kelly McGillis, Top Gun), who is being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee due to the fact that she is a member of various left-leaning political groups. When Emily refuses to name names for the committee, she loses her job (and pretty much any chance to do comparably high-profile work elsewhere). Forced to find any sort of work available, she accepts a job an a “reading companion” for an old woman (Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy) who can no longer see well enough to read books on her own.
That might have been the sad end to a short story, but one day, Emily witnesses something unusual: a heated argument between Senator Ray Salwen (Mandy Patinkin, The Princess Bride) – a HUAC committee member who took particular pride in persecuting Emily - and an elderly German man. Something seems fishy about the whole thing, so Emily starts digging a little deeper. Eventually, she finds herself wrapped up in a sinister conspiracy involving HUAC, Nazi war criminals and secret Cold War plots. Eventually, her investigation is aided by FBI Agent Cochran (Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom), who had been tasked with keeping an eye on Emily but soon becomes an indispensable ally.
Director Peter Yates gave us one of the better neo-noir flicks of the 1970s with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, so it makes sense that he was tapped to helm this throwback. Unfortunately, he just doesn't find a way to make the material come to life. The predictability of the film can perhaps be blamed on the deliberately old-fashioned storytelling, but there's a consistent lack of energy that seriously damages some of the film's more ambitious sequences (particularly a climactic action set piece that unfolds in Grand Central Terminal – a waste of an iconic location). Whatever passion the filmmakers might have felt for this material doesn't come across in the finished product.
The performances are a mixed bag, with McGillis' work standing out as the easy highlight. She balances the character's growing paranoia with a sense of cool-headed rationality, and delivers quietly persuasive work from start to finish. Tandy is fun during her handful of scenes, too, offering another amusing variation on the sort of “prickly old woman” role she specialized in during the '80s. The men are more disappointing: Daniels' work as the FBI Agent is perhaps his most vanilla performance, and Patinkin's smooth-talking villain is a standard-issue mustache-twirler.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is relegated to a secondary plot point: the American government's secretive efforts to bring former Nazi scientists, engineers and technicians to the United States in the hopes of enlisting their aid in the Cold War. There are some fascinating moral issues to explore there, and the handful of scenes in which The House on Carroll Street digs into that material are the moments when the film starts to come to life. There's a good movie to be made from that stuff. Unfortunately, in this case it's merely a small piece of a largely uninspired (if competently-crafted) throwback.
The House on Carroll Street
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 1988