The Captive City review by Tom Blain

Captive City opens with a highway car chase. In midday, on the outskirts of a small town, Jim Austin (John Forsythe) and his wife Marge (Joan Camden -- who I could have sworn was Besty Blair from Marty ) are on the driving feverishly from "the mob" who is about a 1/2 mile off their tale. They make it to the next towns police station and Jim requests a tape recorder so he can tell his story for all to hear -- just in case he is the next guy to get bumped. The film ends with Senator Estes Kefauver talking to the audience that 1950s "what you've just seen" way about how Captive City is more or less dramatization on a true story and how organized crime and underground gambling rings are bad-bad things. What happens in the middle is nearly as exciting as Estes Kefauver.

That's not to begrudge Captive City too much, but it feels like there is something missing. The story starts in the small town of Kennington where Austin is a newspaper journalist. Clyde Nelson (Hal K. Dawson) speaks to Austin in desperation about the goings on in small town Kennington and how he is harassed by cops and fears for his life because of what he knows. Austin brushes it off but when Nelson shows up dead due to mysterious circumstances, it raises more questions than answers. Austin begins looking deeper and deeper into Nelsons death and finds out that the closer he gets to the mafia, the closer he gets to receiving the Clyde-Nelson-treatment.

This film grabbed my attention right away when I learned it was directed by Robert Wise. Wise is a director who often doesn't get his due. This is in large part due to the fact that he had the dubious duties of being the editor on Orson Welles, Magnificent Ambersons, where it was necessary to take cutting instructions from the producer and not the director. History hasn't been kind. In Despite the System for example, he is unfairly played up as a hack. While he isn't blessed with Welles vision, he often did a fine job on the films he worked on. The Set-Up is a brilliant film about a boxer's integrity. He also directed the popular musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music; not auteur work but respectable nonetheless. In Captive City, much like in The Set-Up you can see he learned a lot from his experiences with Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Tolland on Citizen Kane and Ambersons. There is a conscious use of deep focus in many of the scenes; a technique used to increase the depth of field in a shot. Its great and beautiful and crips, but the only problem in Captivie City is that there often isn't anything necessary to see in that background space. In a movie that preys on the paranoia of Nelson and later Austin, it would have been great to use the in-focus background action to draw the attention away from a foregrounded Austin and the audience, (i.e. "Hey wait, whats going on back there?"). There are moments when this affect is almost achieved but its disappointing that it didnt lead to a greater bang.

Often the movie plays out like a government sponsored PSA for anti-organized crime. Austin's wife asks him in a restaurant, "Jim... what is the mafia? Though I've read about it of course, but what is it really?" I swear Ive heard this before. You could replace the word mafia with "reefer","sex","gonorrhea", and "communist party" and you would have a line of dialogue to four other Eisenhower era movies intended to teach the public about bad things. The final scene where Kefauver addresses the audience directly to give them a five minute pow-wow about how stamp out organized crime and gambling plays this feeling up even greater. Kefauver, at the time, was a Democratic senator from Tennessee and was also the head of Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime. Films like this often don't translate well to current audiences as there is no thin veil of propaganda. Its more like a thick eye covering blindfold. Hammed-up scenes that play out as audience threat presentations today are seen as unintentional comedy.

Captive City isn't a great film. The story is ok - - its not gripping by any means but there is some suspense as Austin gets deeper and deeper into the small time mafia that is working in his own hometown. But compared to conspiracy and organized crime films made since 1952, it feels shallow and lacks an extra shake of suspense.




5 out of 10 Jackasses
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