The Captive City (MGM MOD)
Directed by Robert Wise
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 91 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono English
MSRP: $ 19.99
Release Date: March 29, 2011
Review Date: April 20, 2011
Like fellow director David Lean, Robert Wise spent the last decades of his career helming epic-length films (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, Star Trek, The Hindenburg). Both men, however, spent their first decades as directors masterminding much smaller, more intimate works. In Wise’s case, he did sterling work with biographies (I Want to Live! Somebody Up Here Likes Me), sci-fi (The Day the Earth Stood Still), and noir thrillers (The Set-Up, Odds Against Tomorrow). He also directed in 1952 an impressive little independent exposé about the Mafia’s inroads into small towns via gambling, narcotics, prostitution, and other crimes in The Captive City. He didn’t have big stars at his disposal or the resources of a major studio, but this crackerjack little thriller brings to light some undercover criminal activity in a very believable and absorbing fashion.
Small town newspaper editor Jim Austin (John Forsythe) is besieged by middle-aged private eye Clyde Nelson (Hal K. Dawson) that he’s being stalked by local hoods because he looked into the criminal activities of local gambling bookie Murray Sirak (Victor Sutherland). After Nelson is killed in what appears to be a hit and run accident which is barely investigated by the local police, Austin himself begins snooping around. He learns that Sirak is only a middle man in a huge criminal gambling operation being run by a Mafia big shot named Dominick Fubretti, an operation that has its tentacles spreading through all of the town’s key businesses including Austin’s own newspaper, the police department, and even the clergy. As the criminals begin to apply pressure to Austin to drop his investigation, he and his wife (Joan Camden) must make a run for it to save their own lives and to take what information he has to the government who is in the midst of its own investigation about organized crime in interstate commerce being led by Senator Estes Kefauver.
Told using a flashback motif as the frightened Austin speaks what he knows into a tape recorder, the screenplay by Karl Kamb and Alvin Josephy Jr. generates considerable tension as the noose tightens around Austin’s neck the second he begins his own snooping around. It must have been eye-opening for average viewers of the day to see how organized crime could infiltrate their own towns under the cover of respectability especially when such usually reliable foundations of morality as newspapers and churches come under the protagonist’s unbiased scrutiny and don’t emerge unscathed. Wise directs many of the scenes with long takes and few camera angles requiring the actors to be really proficient in saying lines and hitting marks without cutting, and that also increases the feeling of economy and tautness that the film generates continually. Estes Kefauver himself appears (very stiffly and almost laughably) in the coda describing the work of his committee, but the fictional tale we’ve just seen doesn’t really need his stamp of approval to make it seem very much of the moment.
John Forsythe is as rock solid as always as the crusading editor who doesn’t know what deep waters he’s stepping into, and Joan Camden gives him solid support as his wife. As his publisher, Harold J. Kennedy is particularly effective as one of the influential townspeople bending under pressure from the Mob while Victor Sutherland as the local bookie and Hal K. Dawson as the murdered private eye make fine impressions without undue showiness. Martin Milner has one of his first adult roles as a cub photographer on the newspaper who runs afoul of some bad guys, and Ray Teal as the smiling cobra of a police chief is likewise very good.
Though the DVD’s liner notes state that the film is in widescreen, it has been framed properly at its theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Grayscale is fairly good for this made-on-demand disc though blacks certainly don’t approach anything like their deepest possibilities instead being more of a dark gray. Sharpness is good, but the picture is at the mercy of some interlaced ghosting which varies in intensity from almost unnoticeable to somewhat problematic in some later scenes. There are some age-related dust specks and some minor spotting, but the herringbone coat Forsythe wears through much of the film never flashes or displays moiré patterns. Chapters have been placed every ten minutes so the disc has 10 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio track is decoded by Dolby Prologic into the center channel. Dialogue is very easy to understand with the music by Jerome Moross or the sound effects never overwhelming it. The ADR is noticeable at times with the audio track, and there is low to medium hiss on occasion which can be heard during the more pensive scenes.
There are no bonus features (no trailer) offered with this made-on-demand disc.
3/5 (not an average)
Robert Wise’s The Captive City does not have the polish or sophistication of his big studio-produced movies of the 1950s, but it’s an engrossing dramatic exposé just the same and well worth seeing.