For Robert Wise’s 1952 film The Captive City, former Time magazine scribe Alvin Josephy adapted his own short story of a crusading editor who discovers the big city rackets have quietly taken hold in his small corner of the world. The editor, Jim Austin, is played by television icon John Forsythe (Bachelor Father, Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty); while the wife / Cloris Leachman doppleganger is Joan Camden. Astute viewers may recognize her from Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The story is told through flashbacks, and features a unique opening sequence with the U.S. Senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver, speaking directly to the audience. Kefauver warns ticket buyers to be vigilant and reminds them that organized crime is an ever-expanding enterprise from which not even the most rural communities are safe. (Ironically, Kefauver didn’t get much traction as a racket buster, but he sure kicked the stuffing out of the comic book industry.)
The bulk of The Captive City is concerned not only with the obstacles Jim Austin must overcome to root out the corruption, but also the lethargic response of the townspeople and their willingness to accept organized crime as part of their daily existence. What makes it interesting as a film noir is that the town’s inability to get behind Austin doesn’t come from fear of mafia violence or shakedowns, but instead from the community’s acceptance of gambling and graft as a necessary — in some cases welcome — part of modern life. The film’s take on the banality of cynicism is one of the most unusual in all of film noir.
The only murder victims in the film are two supporting characters who come forward as potential whistle-blowers. Stepping outside the narrative, it’s much more interesting to consider how the filmmakers chose to present these characters. Both have fallen from the town’s social graces and appear to be the most maladjusted townspeople in the movie: a broken-down and discredited investigator who is forced to take divorce work in order to pay the bills, and the drunken ex-wife of the city’s chief bookmaker. In the gray milieu of noir we are asked to carefully consider their motives for coming forward. Are they concerned citizens who care about their civic duty, or are they revenge-seekers with an axe to grind? Regardless of their personal agendas, it is made clear that the collective inability of these “misfits” to fit in and conform to the city’s general culture of malaise is what gets them killed.
Throughout the picture ordinary townsfolk keep telling Austin to mind his own business: his business partner, advertisers, cops, and even his wife, after she’s confronted in the street. His pup photographer takes a beating, and only then does the boy’s mother decide to give Austin a piece of her mind. The film does very little to dispel the general attitude that crime is an inescapable fact of modern life, as common as a newspaper tossed into the rosebush or flies getting in through the screen door. Inevitable, but only slightly annoying.
There isn’t a moment in the picture that shows the negative effects of this underlying corruption has on the citizenry. In fact, the only characters who suffer harm are the ones that stick their necks out by coming forward. This unrepentantly bleak outlook is reinforced at the end, when the viewer is surprisingly denied the chance to share in the hero’s success. When Jim Austin finally arrives in Washington DC to testify at the senate hearings, we are denied admittance to the chamber — the door is quite literally slammed in our collective face. We are even begrudged the lesser pleasure of seeing the gangsters who doggedly chased the Austins across the country get theirs. Instead they vanish back into the DC crowds, forgotten by the film and by law enforcement. The film refuses to give us a Hollywood ending, even though (for once) we really want one — ironic within the context of film noir, as so many other movies foist off an artificially happy denouements where none is wanted. Instead we are left with the empty message of Kefauver, who offers only the hollow reassurance that the real Jim Austin is out there somewhere, anonymous but “still alive.” Although at its heart The Captive City is an expos picture, its bleak world view, extraordinary cynicism, and pervasive malaise make it an important film noir.
One final note: It’s worth pointing out that poster for The Captive City, a film that deals with the Italian mafia, clearly anticipates the artwork of the dust jacket and movie poster for The Godfather by almost twenty years.
The Captive City (1952)
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Alvin Josephy
Starring: John Forsythe, Joan Camden, Harold Kennedy, Victor Sutherland, Marjorie Crossland, and Ray Teal.
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 90 minutes