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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Is Yours A Captive City?

The Captive City isn’t a picture many people care about. It’s never been one noirists levitated over, possibly due to uncertain fit within that category. Besides, there were numerous cheapies (Captive City’s tag was $250,000) taking off on excitement generated by the Kefauver hearings beginning in 1951. Estes Kefauver headed senate investigations into organized crime and racketeering, which he said infected virtually every town in America. Televised grilling of Mafia figures became an unexpected sensation, with Kefauver a folk hero and author (within a year) of two books, plus articles in The Saturday Evening Post. His message was clear even as it went unheeded. We were all complicit in the fait accompli of a Mob takeover. Anytown, USA had opened its doors to body snatchers now firmly in control of municipalities nationwide. It was a chilling message and largely true. Small-time bookmaking = Organized Crime = Communities Invaded. The Captive City’s aliens arrive in black sedans with plates out of Florida. Friends and neighbors taking two-dollar bets are among those possessed by them. You can’t trust the police or your friends at the Country Club. Robert Wise’s film is structured much like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, only The Captive City came four years earlier. The hero in terrorized flight from his small town narrates in flashback as to how the nightmare began. Wise’s film is modestly tense and believable in ways that showier attacks on human nature and its support systems, such as Ace In the Hole, could never be, for unlike Billy Wilder’s broadside, The Captive City presents corruption as a done deal we’ve accepted and learned to live with, a far more disturbing proposition than Wilder’s seeming fresh discovery of society’s rotted foundation. John Forsythe is Wise’s regular guy waking up to realities everyone else is long since hep to. Every town’s got a larceny streak in it, he’s told, everybody’s gonna bet once in a while. Well, did they? Do they still? Of course they do, you’re all thinking, and probably with the sons of barbers and merchants who were making book in 1952 when Kefauver and The Captive City made it all seem like news. I watched this little picture and felt hometown nerve-ends touched in ways ordinary crime thrillers don’t get near (you used to could bet on ball games at our theatre’s concession stand, among many other places). Did law enforcement and movies eventually give up trying to warn us about gambling and it’s corrosive effects, surrendering much as they did in the twenties with its unenforceable Prohibition Act? I began wondering if bookmaking is even (still) illegal in most states. Turns out it is, but you’d not know from the ease of online gaming and access to wagers on every street corner yet. Exposés like The Captive City after five decades are really about a battle waged and lost, for here is crime that paid and keeps on paying.

Was that little something on a horse or the weekend’s gridiron contest such a big deal? Kefauver knew we thought not, so he tied in gambling with inevitable mob rule and killings in communities otherwise friendly and bucolic. Big cities were figured long lost to thuggery, thus said emphasis. Robert Wise latched onto the killers next door theme and made his "Kennsington" setting (no state indicated) the sort of place where any of us might live (population 36,000), his payoff all the more frightful when a clearly indicated Mafia muscles in. Things like that just don’t happen, says one character, --- not here, but Wise shows us it can and probably will unless we purge compromised local governments. The Picture That Tosses A Hot Stick Of Dynamite Into The Laps Of 1000 City Administrations was what posters said, and the director effectively uses scare devices he learned as apprentice for Val Lewton back at RKO in the forties. Onetime crusading reporter Alvin Josephy, Jr. wrote the story. He’d been with papers around Hollywood that tried lifting lids off the rackets and was said to have barely escaped with his life. Wise himself remembered sinister phone calls during production of The Captive City. The invisible army seemingly leaned on anyone sniffing too close. Writers covering fifties paranoia take note --- this was where the action was. Movies crawled all over it, even if there were already five television series by 1952 feeding off revelations from the hearings. The bigger the city under studio microscopes, the bigger the star busting rackets therein. Humphrey Bogart proved equal to gang perfidy in large burgs fought over in The Enforcer and The Captive City’s deluxe model counterpart, Deadline USA (these from Warners and Fox, respectively), while Glenn Ford tamed a town (and corrupt officialdom) only slightly less populous in Columbia’s The Big Heat. The thing that makes The Captive City work is a hero in John Forsythe whose end run against Kennsington’s takeover remains uncertain to the last, as Forsythe had not the tough-guy authority of sure-to-win-out Bogart and Ford. It also helped that Wise shot everything on Reno, Nevada locations, using offices, libraries, public buildings, and Laundromats to heighten authenticity. Ultra-wide angle shooting (with then-new Hoge lenses) makes everything pin sharp, especially in High Definition, the format in which The Captive City happily plays on MGM’s HD network.

Aspen Productions was the independent company formed by Robert Wise, Mark Robson and former RKO producer Theron Warth in 1949. The Captive City was their first project. Val Lewton had been promised a spot in the venture, but was aced out early. Maybe the two directors, earlier mentored by Lewton, figured Warth to be a safer bet to produce for them. He’d successfully overseen Wise’s Blood On the Moon at RKO in 1948, and that made $235,000 in profits. The Captive City seemed ideal to exploit a subject everyone with newspapers or a television would be talking about. It wrapped in February 1952 and was released the following month. Writer Josephy graduated to TIME magazine on the strength of his journalistic investigations and Wise was able to induce Estes Kefauver to appear in an added epilogue after screening Captive City for the senator in Washington. There is no such thing as a little harmless vice, Kefauver warned on screen. Cut off the crime dollar at its source, in your own town, and the syndicate will shrivel and die. The script gave ample explanation, via Forsythe’s monologues, of what we were up against. He’d supply what amounted to the screen’s first definition of a modern day Mafia. You don’t hear much about them, unless you get in their way, precedes lectures (with charts!) delineating inroads made by the Mob. Florida is mentioned among points of origin. Towns were still insular enough in the fifties for any out-of-state tag to credibly attract notice and arouse dread. A distinctly Italian name like Dominick Fabretti confirms membership in Mafia circles. That character’s presence in Kennsington can only lead to townfolk’s blood being spilled. To separate The Captive City from earlier racket pictures meant emphasizing It Could Happen To You!. A showman’s success with this kind of show was based entirely on individual initiative. In those days before nationwide saturation, and certainly in the case of a low-budget programmer out of United Artists, everything rode on ballyhoo theatres generated at local levels. The promotional outlay as illustrated here (imagine costs of manning a "Chump’s Carnival" display like this in any small-town lobby) was beyond resources of venues running The Captive City on two day bookings, and probably in support of another feature at that. There just wasn’t time or money to push such minor product in accordance with suggestions made in pressbooks. Said low earning expectations restricted budgets for The Captive City and its kin. Sleepers among these were rare. The Captive City managed just $310,000 in domestic rentals, despite generally positive reviews. Maybe they didn’t get it out fast enough. Similar exposés continued through the fifties, few as good as The Captive City for lack of its novelty value if nothing else. One in 1955, The Phenix City Story, topped Wise’s film for sheer viciousness and set the bar higher (or was it lower) before the cycle wore itself out. By the sixties, mistrust and paranoia with regards the national government made illicit horse parlors in small towns seem quaint indeed. Current trends, ongoing for decades it seems, mandate that all corruption begin at the very top. One-sheets for Leonardo DeCaprio’s newest saves us the trouble of identifying villains by simply reading … Trust No One.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, Captive City has been airing on MGM HD channel during the month of October and November.

7:55 PM  

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