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De Rochemont Discovers Docudrama

(more) Father of the Modern Docu-Drama


Because he produced, rather than directed most of his films, de Rochemont floats invisibly in the background of an eclectic array of movies. No biography of him exists and his on-location style shooting and journalistic approach to characters leaves some viewers cold.

Lost BoundariesMy introduction to the Newington, NH filmmaker (born in Chelsea, Mass in 1899) was through his locally-focused films, the ones that caused such excitement in the Seacoast years after World War II. "Lost Boundaries" (the story of a NH black family "passing" as white) and "Whistle at Eaton Falls" (about a wild-cat factory strike) are still spoken of around here with pride, even reverence.

True to the de Rochemont formula, the plots of both films sprang from real incidents. By the time they were released in 1949 and 1951 de Rochemont was a maverick film-maker, at odds with the slick Hollywood machine. He was already legendary for his March of Time series, the world-wide news clips that appeared each week in theaters between the cartoon and the main feature. Kids in the audience groaned when the news section appeared, but they watched. Before the arrival of television, de Rochemont film shorts, like Walter Winchell on the radio and the Hearst newspapers, was a primary source of current events. If we agree that moving images are extremely powerful, through the 1930's and 40's de Rochemont was among the most influential men in America.

Then suddenly he wasn't. During WWII, de Rochemont had used his March of Time skills to produce patriotic documentaries: Ramparts We Watch (1940), We are the Marines (1942) and Fighting Lady (1944) which won an Academy Award. With the conflict over, the man who had filmed and interpreted presidents, kings and dictators in war, turned toward more narrative work in peace. There were so many great American stories to tell.

House on 92nd StreetWhat could be more compelling than a peek inside the FBI building and a story ripped from their secret spy files? "The House on 92nd Street" opens with actual FBI surveillance film of employees coming and going from the German embassy in Washington. In his inimitable manner, de Rochemont insisted that real FBI agents play themselves, with only a small cast of professionals in lead roles. The melodramatic result is a deadpan Lloyd Nolan as FBI Agent Mr. Briggs, the progenitor of emotionless characters like Sergeant Friday (Jack Webb) in "Dragnet", Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) or Mr. Phelps (Peter Graves) in television's "Mission Impossible" and a whole host of modern crimestoppers.

Recently re-released on video by 20th Century Fox, de Rochemont's groundbreaking film was a slap of reality in the face of schmaltzy Hollywood romances. With the blessing of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, de Rochemont synthesized authentic bureau records to create a composite story. In this "true to life" adventure, the Nazi fifth column of American-based spies tries to steal the formula for Project 93 -- the secret of the atomic bomb. Using double agent William Dietrich (William Eythe), FBI inspector Mr. Briggs uncovers the plot and saves the free world.

CONTINUE de Rochemont

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