Directors Raoul Walsh and Robert Wise never fail to throw me for a loop (maybe it’s the “right/wrong” RW initials?). Just when I think I’ve got them pegged, up pop nine gazillion celluloid obscurities that I’ve never heard of. A perfect example is the latter’s superb 1952 docu-noir thriller THE CAPTIVE CITY, now on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.
A true story, THE CAPTIVE CITY is a genuinely frightening vest-pocket sleeper depicting the horrific events befalling journalist John Forsythe (in his big-screen debut) and wife/partner Joan Camden. Forsythe, as newshound Jim Austin, seems to be leading the ideal life. A no-nonsense reporter, he has taken an offer to edit (and co-run) his best friend’s newspaper in the small, quaint town of Kennington, (located just outside of Anywhere, USA). It’s a picture-perfect quiet white (in every sense of the word) picket-fence life, peaceful, tranquil – ideal for raising a family and enjoying the 1950s post-war middle-class American dream.
Or so it seems.
Snarky, suspicious Forsythe is nonplussed when a down-on-his luck private eye (Hal K. Dawson) stumbles into his world with a wild tale of political corruption, murder and attempted assassination. Forsythe initially tolerates the ravings of this loon, but is jarred when the man (who claimed this all stemmed from a divorce case) is found dead a short time later. Forsythe decides to half-heartedly pursue the story, questioning the victim’s terrified widow (Geraldine Hall). When the facts add up, Forsythe opts to blow the lid on the villainy within his township’s midst. And then it starts. He and his wife are harassed by the local cops, businessmen, and the general Kennington citizenry.
WTF is going on here?
Soon the sinister Chief of Police (the always oily Ray Teal) grins a “knock it off” flesh-crawling threat. In rapid succession, the Austins’ world takes a sharp detour from Norman Rockwell to Norman Bates. The hellish situation spirals downward when Forsythe discovers that his best pal (Harold J. Kennedy), who got him the gig, is also “in on it.”
But what is “it?”
In the wake of the Kefauver hearings, Kennington is revealed to be one of a myriad of idyllic little off-the-radar hamlets that factions of organized crime took over. Mob kingpins poured big bucks into the local businesses, helped elect the officials and kept the populace comfortably solvent while they used the burgs as hide-in-plain-sight vicinities to perpetrate money laundering, drug and prostitution drop-off revenue points, and, for the icing on the cake, grab a piece of the action of the more successful legit concerns. It’s a McCarthyism offshoot at its most heinous, or, as Teal refers to the embracing of conformity: “…giving the people what they want.”
This is a real-life Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and, thus, all the more harrowing. Coupled with violence and stark documentary style filming a la The Phenix City Story (but made a years before either), THE CAPTIVE CITY is a template for top-notch low-budget movie-making; in short, a pic that totally deserves to be discovered (I’d say rediscovered, but I don’t believe most folks have ever had the chance to find it in the first place). This nail-biter is a twentieth-century shocker of the highest order, an effort that Wise’s former boss, Val Lewton, would have no doubt proudly approved of. The non-phantasmagorical chills are not only Lewtonesque, but even prefigure the director’s 1963 explicit supernatural Grand Guignol masterpiece The Haunting. The fact that this all happens in broad daylight, amongst smiling faces of “turned” neighbors, makes the proceedings all the more nasty.
One sequence of Forsythe being tailed by an ominous sedan is creep-out marvelous. The slow-moving vehicle, stealthily stalking its prey, atmospherically undergoes a transformation from automobile into fearsome monster (its grillwork, appearing in full sardonic grimace, is almost reminiscent of a Paul Blaisdell creation). As Camden begs her husband to justifiably flee the hellish community (“I don’t know if I want to live like this. This is Kennington, not Chicago!”), Forsythe, in full agreement, plots their exit. They’ve been targeted – change or die. The couple’s escape (which serves as the framing story) is a paranoid’s dream, or nightmare. Can they make it to the next town’s police department? But, wait a minute. What if that community has been corrupted too? And the next town. And the next. How far has this malignant disease spread? No less than Kefauver himself makes an appearance to verify the events in this movie as being 100% authentic, which makes it 110% scarifyin’. Supposedly, the “Austins” did live to testify, and were spirited away into some sort of witness-protection-program where we hope they prospered and survived.
THE CAPTIVE CITY, while filmed on a shoestring, has formidable credentials. Aside from Wise and the excellent script by Alvin M. Joseph, Jr. and Karl Kamb (based on a story by Joseph), CITY was photographed by the great Lee Garmes, and contains a wonderful score by Jerome Moross. Aside from the aforementioned thesps, the terrific supporting cast includes Victor Sutherland (excelling in loathsome viciousness), Martin Milner, Marjorie Crossland, Ian Wolfe, Paul Newlan, Paul Brinegar and Gladys Hurlburt. Wise was deservedly elated when the few people familiar with this movie would ask him about it. He happily recounted that the entire pic was shot on-location (interiors and exteriors) in Reno, Nevada, without one studio insert, and in less than three weeks.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray looks and sounds great, with crystal-clear monochrome imagery to match the wild sound audio. I suggest double-billing it with Siegel’s 1956 classic, provided you screen the sci-fi version first (it makes the real thing, which I’m convinced that Body Snatchers writer Jack Finney must have seen, come off way freakier).
THE CAPTIVE CITY is one of Robert Wise’s finest movies. It’s a shameful example of a “fallen-through-the-cracks” project that, thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics, can now be deservedly excavated.
THE CAPTIVE CITY. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Lorber/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT# K1942. SRP: $29.95.