The Captive City
by Jef Burnham
Now available on on-demand DVD on the MGM Limited Edition Collection.
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John Forsythe (Dynasty) stars in this forgotten film noir from director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Day the Earth Stood Still) inspired by the true story of Time magazine crime reporter, Alvin M. Josephy, who also happens to be the film’s screenwriter. In The Captive City, James Austin, a newspaper man in the small town of Kennington, embarks on an investigation of Kennington’s corrupt city government and the mafia-fronted gambling ring that backs them. He soon finds himself targeted by local police and hounded by violent mobsters, but refuses to back down. Can his search for truth bring justice to Kennington when the law is in bed with the mafia?
The Captive City is pretty standard, if occasionally exceptional, B-movie fare. The film opens with James and Marge barging into the Warren Police Station in search of the local chief, claiming that someone is trying to kill them. When the chief is unavailable, James decides to dictate what he has learned about the case into a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a la Double Indemnity. This dictation of course becomes the narration of the film, but it does nothing for the suspense of the picture as he just never shuts up. And what’s worse is that he is often narrating precisely what we see onscreen, so it’s incessant and redundant. The narration here acts simply as a short cut to proper storytelling.
Although the film’s cinematographer Lee Garmes is known for some excellent work including Scarface (1932) and The Desperate Hours (1955), the constraints of The Captive City’s location photography takes its toll on his craft. Tight hallways force him into unidirectional lighting setups, lights are occasionally reflected in glass surfaces found on location, and the majority of scenes are far too evenly lit for a film noir for my taste. However, when the characters find themselves out at night and there are indeed shadows, Garmes delivers some pretty terrific compositions. Unfortunately for these moments, the picture transfer here is rendered with a slightly green tint. Otherwise, the picture looks terrific despite marginal damage to the print.
In the film’s stilted final moments, real life Senator Estes Kefauver, head of the Senate Committee on Organized Crime, appears onscreen to urge viewers not to remain silent about the presence of organized crime in their towns. Thus the film becomes little more than an hour and a half PSA (public service announcement).
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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