Thursday, January 30, 2020
Noir Watch: The Captive City (1952)
Format: Noir Alley on TCM on DVR
The Hayes Era produced some interesting bedfellows between Hollywood and public officials. Esepcially as we headed into the HUAC years and Hollywood watched as colleagues were dragged out in front of cameras or placed in rooms to testify, naming names. An odd side-effect was the over-compensation and big hug some movies gave law enforcement in some movies as they attempted to illustrate the complicated scenarios the officials were on about.
The Captive City (1952) is not actually noir, but it is a crime film wherein a crusading journalist's quest for the truth in the death of a local private eye exposes some truths about his friendly town and the upstanding citizens who wield power. The film is bookended by some low-key lecturing by Estes Kefauver, a US Senator not averse to self-promotion and whipping up issues to get the public in a tizzy. Comics readers will know Kefauver as the same Senator who dreamed up bringing comic publishers to the Senate to explain themselves in the wake of Seduction of the Innocent. Muller explains that Kefauver believed box office success for the movie would get him in front of voters and help get him the nomination by the Dems for the 1952 election, which Stevenson lost to Eisenhower (the movie didn't do very well, natch).
But between those two grating sequences, we get a movie that actually pretty much works as a young-ish John Forsythe plays a smalltown newspaper editor turning over rocks in his small town and being asked with increasing force by the upstanding gentry of the town to please quit looking. But bodies are piling up, cub reporters are getting smacked around and crime is on the rise.
What's really interesting is how the movie doesn't just play it as "there are a few bad apples", but shows the small concessions of small business and participation of city leaders who are happy to look the other way at things like book-making, even as that money adds up, and draws very real criminals. Usually crime films focus on a single antagonist, but here we see the systemic problems as folks look the other way, shrug off what they see as a small deal and soft pressure gets tougher the closer you look. More, though, the film investigates how anyone who *could* do something about it has either bosses who aren't interested (in the case of police) or journalists, who see advertising dry up and scared news vendors drop out, threatening livelihoods and delegitimizing the actual news.
I don't think it's a coincidence Muller chose to show the movie - we're in an era when looking the other way had cost us plenty, and where anything resembling decent journalism has been ground up and spit out by corporate news organizations who don't want to lose advertisers and who see a profit when they play along. Our shady dealings may be on a higher level than local city politics, but the strong arms tactics look awfully familiar.
The film was directed by Robert Wise, a wildly under-discussed director, and made at his own briefly lived studio. Even with fewer resources, Wise can still tell a hell of a story, but it isn't the gut punch of some of his bigger films, anything from The Haunting to noir like The Set-Up. He gets great performances out of both name talent and local and smaller talent he hired for the picture. If the movie lacks in anything, it's that it fits the bill for 1950's over-lit filmmaking as everyone became concerned about selling movies to TV, which needed a brighter, sharper picture.
Worth checking out, but firmly in the "crime does not pay" school of crime pictures, which can feel a bit toothless, but I think the movie does a darn good job of making its point.