The Captive City

by Glenn Erickson Jan 04, 2016

Robert Wise’s taut noir suspenser about the Mafia takeover of a small city is like an underworld Invasion of the Body Snatchers. John Forsythe’s newsman slowly realizes that gambling corruption has infiltrated the business district, city hall, and even his close associates; he’s expected to become a crook too, or else. Great docudrama style aided by a special deep-focus lens; Estes Kefauver makes a personal appearance touting the crime-busting Washington committee that inspired the picture.

The Captive City
KL Studio Classics
1952 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 91 min.
Street Date January 5, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95

Starring John Forsythe, Joan Camden, Marjorie Crossland, Victor Sutherland, Ray Teal, Martin Milner, Geraldine Hall, Hal K. Dawson, Paul Brinegar, Estes Kefauver, Victor Romito.
Lee Garmes
Film Editor Robert Swink
Original Music Jerome Moross
Written by Alvin M. Josephy Jr., Karl Kamb
Produced by Theron Warth
Directed by Robert Wise


One of the major influences on film noir was the Kefauver Committee, which met in 1950 and 1951 to investigate interstate crime. Chairman Estes Kefauver put witnesses on the stand to testify on what law enforcement had known about for years — that organized crime spanned the country from coast to coast. The Committee made J. Edgar Hoover admit that nationwide syndicates existed, and that the F.B.I. had done nothing about them.

Crime films had often posed as public exposés, showing the changing nature of criminality. Gangsters now report to bigger bosses out of town. 711 Ocean Drive ‘lays bare the truth’ about the wire rackets. The Enforcer trumpets the existence of Murder Incorporated. The Byron Haskin noir I Walk Alone shows a prohibition-era hoodlum emerging from prison to discover that a racket he once part-owned is now held by a business conglomerate – and that there’s no way for him to claim his 50% share.

The Captive City is the first filmic response to the Kefauver Committee. It frankly didn’t impress me much when I first saw it at a younger age, but now I fully appreciate its low-key approach to a new kind of ’50s paranoia. An idealistic couple slowly becomes aware that their community has been infiltrated by an antisocial threat, a creeping conspiracy. In many ways the movie foreshadows Don Siegel’s ultimate expression of social paranoia, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Jim Austin (John Forsythe) co-owns a newspaper in the cozy & quiet mid-sized rural town of Kennington, pop. 300,000. He and his wife Marge (Joan Camden) are finally seeing the glimmerings of prosperity and have joined the country club. Private eye Clyde Nelson (Hal K. Dawson) comes forward to report that he fears for his life. Nelson claims that local insurance man Murray Sirak (Victor Sutherland) is running a citywide betting ring, and has the Police Chief Gillette (Ray Teal) in his pocket. For butting into Sirak’s affairs, Nelson is being persecuted by the cops and threatened by thugs. Jim is friendly with Gillette, who tells him that Nelson is a crank. Jim accepts this story until Nelson turns up dead under suspicious circumstances. The more Jim inquires, the worse things become. Gillette becomes unfriendly and Austin starts getting unwarranted parking tickets. Various business associates tell Jim to back off, but he pursues the truth from Sirak’s ex-wife (Marjorie Crossland). Discovering that a noted mob figure is operating a phone betting parlor, Jim lets his cub photographer Phil Harding (Martin Milner) take the risk of snapping a photo of him. The fact that many legitimate businesses in town are part of Sirak’s bookmaking ring becomes obvious when advertisers pull their business from the paper. All of a sudden Jim Austin is the one being isolated, harassed and threatened. He’s trying to do the right thing for his town, but everybody is against him. Where can he turn?


Robert Wise made the independently produced The Captive City while on break from his 20th Fox contract. He already had a reputation as an efficient and trustworthy director. He satisfied producers while creating interesting pictures, almost all of which did well. He was also known as a ‘safe’ liberal, who could make a pacifist film in wartime (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and not be labeled a pinko. Wise formed Aspen Pictures with Mark Robson, and the result was this film and Robson’s Technicolor Return to Paradise. Aspen originally engaged Val Lewton as its house producer, but Wise and Robson replaced their former mentor with Theoren Warth, another ex-editor. Co-screenwriter Alvin M. Josephy was a crime reporter, which adds to the convincing background of the town’s little newspaper.

Wise pulled two key craftsmen from Citizen Kane, which he had edited ten years before.  The Captive City would be designer and artist Maurice Zuberano’s only credit for production design, but Wise hired him to storyboard and design many of his later films, and to shoot second unit. When interviewed about West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles, The Sound of Music and The Andromeda Strain Wise would always give major credit to Maurice Zuberano.

Also from Kane came the ex- grip and camera technician Ralph Hoge, billed as an assistant. His ‘Hoge Lens’ is given its own credit. Always technically minded, Wise wanted Kane-like deep focus shots, but needed a fast lens to film in tight interiors. The Hoge Lens is a major asset, giving the film a polished appearance on a very modest budget. The show was filmed in just 22 days on real locations in and around Reno, Nevada.

John Forsythe had been working for ten years, mostly in TV, and this was his first leading film role. The cast includes young Martin Milner and perennial bad guy Ray Teal, but also some highly effective supporting players filmed in an un-glamorous context. None of the main characters look like Hollywood people. They convince as mid-westerners, and seem as real as the locations. Stage actress Marjorie Crossland made her Broadway debut in 1925 and played a bit part in Day the Earth Stood Still. Here she’s the centerpiece of an excellent unbroken four-minute dramatic scene.

The Captive City shapes up as a low-key thriller, a film noir adapting to the semi-documentary style of the ’50s. It contrasts strongly with other more socially critical ( read: left-leaning ) exposé films of the time. Films by Joseph Losey and Cy Endfield made frontal attacks on the American profit motive, racism and the corrupt justice system, questioning the status quo with an ironic pessimism. Wise’s movie actually goes further than the accusatory The Underworld Story and The Prowler to say that any ordinary American town can be subverted and corrupted, its honest citizens converted into powerless minions of organized crime. The Kenningtonian crooks aren’t sleazy characters hiding in nightclubs; they sell cars and insurance and groceries. They like the extra money, and when somebody threatens to expose them, their first reaction is self-preservation. Jim Austin discovers that his associates and neighbors are already ‘taken over,’ that friendship and ethics no longer mean anything. It’s almost exactly like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Jim Austin finds himself surrounded by pods friends advising him to surrender to complicity with the crook Sirak. At first he gets arguments — “You can’t stop the betting, so why not profit from it?” — and when he resists, the threats begin. Nobody cares if a known mob hoodlum has most of the town in his power, or that a man has been killed. When the paper’s young photographer is given a bad beating, his mother blames Jim. Chief Gillette acknowledges that things should be different, but tells Jim that, because every town has this kind of corruption, there’s no practical way to combat it without making a lot of people suffer. Everybody wants the easy way out.

The shocking thing about The Captive City is that it shows that good citizenship, law & order and equal justice mean very little in practice. Faced with a choice of selling out their ethics or keeping their lousy jobs, people will choose the latter and accept all manner of corruption and violence. Unlike the average crime thriller, ‘telling the truth to the public’ achieves nothing.  Jim and Martha eventually find themselves on the run, exactly like the last unduplicated humans in the Siegel film.

To me, the movie’s most significant scene occurs when Jim convenes a meeting of church ministers, hoping to enlist their aid in spurring the good citizens of Kennington to action. Under the Production Code, Hollywood movies routinely represented Judeo-Christian religious authorities as morally superior. The insultingly rigged scenario of On the Waterfront counters rackets on the docks with emotional appeals from a ‘fighting priest’ that have little or no correlation to real-life labor disputes. When Jim finally talks to his local ministers, they sigh and say that nothing can be done. Their leader (Ian Wolfe) voices the concern that if they stand up with Jim, they’ll simply lose their congregations. Thanks for dropping by, Jim.

I don’t know of another ‘fifties film willing to tell this unpopular truth — the Churches are a business too. It’s right out in the open. We can almost hear Michael Corleone chiming in: “We’re both part of the same hypocrisy, senator.”


The story is told as a flashback, as the Austins race to the state capitol to testify before the Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. A second level of narrative distance is a prologue and epilogue in which Estes Kefauver personally voices a plea to take the country back from the Mafia. Under Robert Wise’s controlled direction, The Captive City now seems more honest and powerful than many ‘subversive’ noirs, but the finish does not convince us that Austin’s testimony will have any effect on the situation in Kennington. In real life, legislation addressing Interstate Crime would be slow in coming and weak in effect. Perhaps more federal money was sent to local police. What will happen when Austin returns to his beloved Kennington, as the rat who sold out the town?

Today, the only part of The Captive City that seems a bit thick is Jim’s general obtuseness. It’s certainly believable that big-city criminality could take a small town publisher by surprise, but Jim makes a big noise with inflammatory editorials and gets more people killed by not realizing that anybody he talks to will be in grave danger. A smart editor would play along with the bad guys, slowly collect evidence and establish communication with some outside law agency. Which agency, I don’t know. From what we’ve learned later, the F.B.I. were ( very suspiciously ) pretending that the Mafia didn’t exist.


Robert Wise’s direction is excellent. He uses that deep focus lens to fine effect in several scenes. He avoids standard suspense effects, which makes the surprise assault on Martin Milner all the more effective. Best of all, Wise’s direction of actors makes us feel that he’s been studying with the neo-realists. The film’s annoying car salesman, worried business partner and an unhappy divorceé seem taken directly from real life. The unpretentious Wise mastered more than one genre and style, but for rest of the ‘fifties he would be a go-to guy for gritty, uncompromising realism.

In the New York Times, reviewer Bosley Crowther praised the film but scoffed at Jim Austin’s predicament. Jim knows of two murders and one beating connected to a corrupt locals and an outside hoodlum. Why doesn’t he just print the facts? Crowther must have had his own illusions about the power of the press, and libel laws. Jim’s own partner scotches one such editorial. The Mafia has killed two people already. There’s little to stop them from murdering Jim and Martha, burning his newspaper office and intercepting any offending editions before they could hit the street. Competent racketeers (or the police chief) would have planted a snitch in his paper, if they didn’t have one already.


The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Captive City is an excellent encoding of this fascinating crime picture from the MGM/United Artists vaults. In old TV prints the show looked fairly plain-wrap, but in HD we can appreciate Lee Garmes’ fine cinematography, with its razor-sharp deep focus effects achieved without studio lighting resources. The print is in fine shape; it’s a show to be proud of. It makes us eager to see a similar remastering of Robert Wise’s B&W Odds Against Tomorrow, where he first made the infra-red film experiments that he used again for The Haunting.

Also of note is an early movie score by composer Jerome Moross (The Big Country, The Valley of Gwangi) that fits the story like a glove and never overstates its case. At this point in his career, Robert Wise seemed to be making only smart moves.

The Kino disc is mastered in a 1:33 aspect ratio, which in this case looks narrower than other flat Academy pix (which is of course 1:37, an almost invisible difference). The trailer included makes the film seem as much of a public service warning, as a film ad.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Captive City
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 2, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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