The Captive City (Kino Lorber, NR)

The-Captive-City 75The Captive City is a plot-heavy film that emphasizes story and action over personalities.





The Captive City 500

Robert Wise had quite a career in the film business. After some uncredited early work in the sound department, he worked as an editor on 12 films, including Citizen Kane (1941). After directing a few scenes in The Magnificent Ambersons (uncredited), Wise made his official directorial debut on Val Lewton’s The Curse of the Cat People (1944). The rest is history, as they say: Wise went on to have a distinguished directing career across multiple genres, including horror (The Body Snatcher, 1945; The Haunting, 1963), science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951; Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979), war (Run Silent, Run Deep, 1958; The Sand Pebbles, 1966), and musicals (West Side Story, 1961; The Sound of Music, 1965).

The Captive City (1952) is not one of Wise’s best-known films, nor is it one for the ages, but it is an enjoyable crime melodrama with a ripped-from-the-headlines quality thanks to its relation to the 1951 Kefauver Committee hearings. The Committee, chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, was created to investigate organized crime in the United States. The hearings were televised, making Kefauver a household name and introducing many Americans to crime figures such as Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello. Fans of The Godfather trilogy may remember that Michael Corleone testifies before a fictionalized version of the Kefauver Committee hearings in The Godfather Part II.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood rushed to capitalize on the public fascination with organized crime created by the televised hearings, and The Captive City was the first of several films that dealt with this subject. One of the key points established by the Committee, that organized crime was not limited to big cities or to people of any particular ethnic group, is key to the plot of The Captive City, which is set in a fictional town so apparently peaceful and clean that it might as well be called Wholesomeville, U.S.A.

Most of the story of The Captive City is told in flashback, after an action-filled opening sequence with Jim Austin (John Forsythe, in his film debut) and his wife (Joan Camden) racing down the road in their wood-paneled station wagon. They pull into a police station and tell the rather sleepy desk sergeant that their lives are in danger, pointing to a newspaper headline, “Senate Witness Murdered,” as evidence of the gravity of the situation. Unable to impress the sergeant, Austin then begins narrating his story on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, presumably to ensure that if he is killed, his story will not be forgotten.

Austin runs a local newspaper, The Kennington Journal. A few brief scenes establish that the story takes place during the golden age of the local newspaper when a stable demand for print advertising provided the funds to support real careers in the business. This nostalgic idyll is broken by a phone call from a private investigator, Clyde Nelson (Hal K. Dawson), who has some news he says will “bust this town wide open.” His story: a local big shot, Murray Sirak (Victor Sutherland) is running an illegal bookie operation, and, as a result of his investigations, Nelson has become the target of police harassment.

As the audience surrogate, Austin is, at first, disinclined to believe these allegations, particularly after oily police chief (Ray Teal) assures him that Nelson is a crank. But when Nelson is killed in a suspicious hit-and-run accident, Austin decides to investigate his allegations further. Like a man who begins by pulling on a stray thread, only to find himself unraveling the whole sweater, Austin finds that the influence of organized crime in his town runs far deeper, and reaches much further than he ever imagined. Just in case, the audience might miss the connection with the Kefauver Commission, an excerpt from the Commission Report appears after the opening credits, and the Senator himself appears directly addresses the audience in an epilogue.

The Captive City is a plot-heavy film that emphasizes story and action over personalities. Wise adopts a semi-documentary style which is appropriate to the story (the character of Austin is based in part on reporter Alvin Josephy, Jr.), and shot The Captive City entirely on location in Reno, Nevada. Low-key acting by the cast adds to the documentary feel of this film, which also features some outstanding cinematography by Lee Garmes, who used the then-new Hoge Lens (a wide-angle lens that allowed great depth of field).

The only extras on the disk are trailers for three films: The Captive City, I Want to Live!, and Run Silent Run Deep. | Sarah Boslaugh

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