Monday, October 6, 2008

The Captive City (Aspen/United Artists, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a rather interesting if not entirely successful movie from 1952, The Captive City, made by the short-lived Aspen Productions company for United Artists release. Aspen was originally supposed to be a cooperative venture of producer Val Lewton and directors Robert Wise and Mark Robson, but at the last minute Wise and Robson froze Lewton out of the deal and replaced him with Theron Warth, who like Wise and Robson was a former RKO editor (his best-known credit in that department was on Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious).

For their first production (there’d be only one other, Return to Paradise, from 1953, starring Gary Cooper in what was essentially a sequel to South Pacific) the three ex-RKO editors picked a story not only inspired by Senator Estes Kefauver’s famous televised hearings on organized crime but actually featuring him: the opening credits say that Kefauver was paid for his part but donated his fee to the Cordell Hull Foundation for World Peace, and The Film Noir Encyclopedia indicates that Kefauver spoke both at the beginning and the end of the film, but in the print we watched he only appeared at the end. I’d assumed we’d see the film end with a dramatization of the hearings in which Kefauver would play himself, but instead we see hero Jim Austin (John Forsythe, top-billed) entering the hearing room to testify and then there’s a cut to Kefauver sitting at a desk and orating directly at the camera like the on-camera narrators in the MGM Crime Does Not Pay shorts. (The Captive City was shot in February 1952 and released on March 26 of that year, and Kefauver probably thought and hoped it would help him in his presidential campaign.)

The film begins with a station wagon emblazoned with the logo of the Kennington Post newspaper speeding through a country road in the early morning, and a sedan chasing it and scaring its inhabitants, Jim Austin and his wife Marge (Joan Camden, with a surprisingly severe hairdo for a woman in a 1950’s movie; at times her hair looks shorter than his!), by thinking that they’re out to kill him — which, this being a movie about the Mafia, of course they are. He decides to hide out in the town of Warren, which is on his way, and he bursts into the police station, pleads with the cops to give him an escort to the state capital (the state itself is carefully unnamed) and, when he sees a tape recorder in the police station, asks to use it to dictate his story so in case the baddies do kill him there’ll be a record of what he meant to tell the Kefauver committee.

That sets the frame for an extended flashback in which it turns out that, as editor/publisher of the Kennington Post, Jim first stumbled onto the existence of the Mafia in his otherwise bucolic small-town community (the place is a perfect example of the instant suburbs that sprang up post-war after the commercial success of Levittown and were so famously ridiculed by Malvina Reynolds in her song “Little Boxes” — The Film Noir Encyclopedia specified the population of Kennington as 300,000 but it looks considerably smaller than that on screen) when he got a tip from a private detective, Clyde Nelson (Hal K. Dawson), that ever since he’d taken on the case of Mrs. Sirak (Marjorie Crossland) in her divorce from local insurance agent Murray Sirak (Victor Sutherland), he’d been harassed by the local police and given a succession of tickets as a form of intimidation to get him to lay off. It turns out that Sirak is running a bookmaking setup that started out as a sideline in his office but got to be big-time when the Mafia, in the person of Dominic Fabretti (Vic Romito), a suspected Mob killer from Florida, came to take it over. They rented space from Krug (Paul Newlan), a manufacturer and friend of Jim’s, and set up a multitude of telephones with which to do their dirty business.

The Captive City is listed in The Film Noir Encyclopedia even though it’s only marginally a film noir (how so many marginal noirs made it in there and a “B” noir masterpiece like Anthony Mann’s The Great Flamarion didn’t remains a mystery) and it’s weakened by over-bright cinematography by the usually reliable Lee Garmes and especially by a ridiculously bouncy and over-used score by Jerome Moross (who seems to have been under the misapprehension that he was writing music for a paean to suburbia instead of an exploration of its dark side);significantly, the most effective suspense scene in the film — the murder of Clyde Nelson, run down by a black Cadillac with Florida plates driven by two Mob enforcers under Fabretti’s direction, while Jim has brushed him off and returned to his meal at the country club he’s just been admitted to — is one of the few moments that is unscored.

What makes this film more interesting than its overbright look, inappropriate music, unimpressive cast (Forsythe and Martin Milner, playing a 19-year-old photographer on the Post, are the only people here I’d previously heard of, and both of them were mostly known for their later work in television), iffy characterizations (Wise directed from a story by Alvin H. Josephy and a script by Josephy and Karl Kamb) and rather cloying small-town atmosphere would indicate is the way it becomes essentially a modern-dress version of High Noon, as Jim Austin tries to involve the townspeople in his anti-Mafia crusade and they all beg off. It turns out that the major business leaders and even the ministers (his last hope!) have decided to look the other way on the theory that no matter whether it’s legal or not, people will find a way to gamble and therefore the Mafia is providing the service and if they weren’t doing it, some even crazier criminals might take over.

The film makes some interesting suggestions on the merits of whether to prohibit vice or regulate it — whether it’s more or less of a harm to society to have it provided in a relatively businesslike fashion — and why legitimate businesses would cooperate with the criminals infesting their community and try to shut down our journalist hero who was trying to flush the bad guys out, but the Josephy-Kamb script isn’t sophisticated enough to communicate much about these conflicts and the issues this film could have explored go pretty much untouched. The Captive City is also an interesting film from the technical standpoint, with Warth and Wise showing that they’d learned from the masters they’d previously worked with — Welles, Hitchcock, Lewton — in the ceilinged sets used for almost every interior, the sound cuts (notably one from Clyde Nelson’s dying scream to the high note played by the country-club trumpeter, shot dead-on with the bell of his instrument filling the screen in that eerie angle John Murray Anderson pioneered in The King of Jazz) and the overall enervation. With a tighter script, a stronger cast and a less obtrusive musical score, The Captive City could have been a stronger movie, though it still would have been a gangsters-take-over-a-town-and-one-crusader-tries-to-stop-them movie and there’d been all too many of those before 1952!