Captive City, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/06/06 21:30:06

"For all the Estes Kefauver fans."
3 stars (Just Average)

We take the mafia for granted nowadays. Few people, I imagine, have much contact with it, but it's entered the collective mind of the American public; certain types of crime are just assumed to be connected to them. And yet, if this film is to believed, they were a mysterious, shadowy society back in the 1950s, even though most of its audience must have lived through Prohibition.

Or, of course, they were just presumed to be a problem for large cities. That's what reporter Jim Austin (John Forsythe) seems to think; he's fleeing from a smaller city with the mob assumed to be in hot pursuit. When he and his wife Marge (Joan Camden) stop at a gas station, he finds a tape recorder and breathlessly records his story - about how a private investigator by the name of Clyde Nelson (Hal K. Dawson) stumbled upon connections between the books a local businessman ran on the side and the mafia, came to Jim with the story, and was killed, spurring Jim to try to bring them down.

The predictable happens, of course - the police are powerless and/or complicit, Nelson's widow blames Jim, his partner in the paper doesn't want to pursue the story. This is the sort of movie that is just old enough that someone watching it today might scratch their heads over whether the cast and crew are following a template or establishing one. Every character and every action hews to the standards of the genre closely enough to please even the most exacting manufacturers; only a few details manage to rise above the generic. There are a few bits that are interesting, such as how the ex-wife of the bookie seems torn in her loyalties between her ex-husband, the detective she hired, what's right, and her own instinct toward self-preservation. It's also notable that at one point Austin matter-of-factly turns to the local clergy for moral authority; I suspect a reporter might not do this today, at least on film.

But, it's not today; The Captive City was released in 1952, during the postwar boom when general prosperity was masking paranoia about the enemy within. Generally, this meant communists, but the Mafia can be made to sound like communists; during the scene where Jim and his partner define the term for the audience members who may not have heard it before, the Sicilian origins of the organization are highlighted, so that it sounds like a foreign group making a beachhead in American cities before spreading to the heartland. There's a faith in the ability of Congress to solve these problems that seems almost comical in retrospect; the Austins are trying to reach a special hearing in "Capital City" to testify before Estes Kefauver, with the implication being that they will be safe and everything will be all right if they do that.

The film is so establishment that Kefauver even directly addresses the audience on the dangers of organized crime in an epilogue, with the opening credits proudly stating that his compensation for appearing in the film has been donated to charity. It's also interesting to note that the film focuses almost exclusively on the mob taking over bookmaking operations; passing reference is made to vice and narcotics, but the film dismisses that; they'd only be bothering real criminals there. In some ways, it almost seems like the film is angry about local bookies being absorbed, like the mob is Wal-Mart causing local bookmaking businesses to close with their strong-arm tactics.

Director Robert Wise had a knack for getting the most out of what he had to work with, and even if that's not much, as is the case with The Captive City. The screenplay by Alvin Josephy and Karl Kamb is heavy-handed, but Wise takes his job seriously, never allowing his characters to look silly even when that might seem hard to avoid. He was also Orson Welles's editor before becoming a director, and he doesn't allow a lot of wasted time in his movie. He also doesn't rush things, giving us time to know the film's multitude of characters. He cuts away from violence without making the audience overly aware that he's cutting away from violence.

The cast does a pretty fair job. There's a lot of speaking in clipped tones going on at some points, and they're playing stock characters. John Forsythe is just dismissive enough in the first act to make him contrite but still decisive over the rest of the movie; he doesn't fall on his face too badly with the hokey narration he's asked to supply. Joan Camden is pretty and supportive as his pretty and supportive wife. Victor Sutherland and Marjorie Crossland are noteworthy as the divorced Siraks - he as the bookie who threatens with a friendly grin on his face and she conflicted for having hired the private eye whose findings and death set everything in motion. Hal K. Dawson is a comforting presence as that P.I., decent and far from hard boiled.

Robert Wise makes the most of what he's got, but even in 1952, this was probably a wholly familiar set-up, and when your biggest twist is a special guest appearance by Estes Kefauver... Well, that's not going to bowl a whole lot of people over in 1952, let alone 2006.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.