The Kefauver Senate Committee on Organized Crime revealed to many Americans, via televised hearings, just how infiltrated organized crime was in their communities. While the hearings are noted for investigating and identifying many top Mafia bosses of the day, connecting mob operations from New York to Chicago to Miami, it also focused on how small town America, seemingly unaffected by big city crime was really not. Kefauver however was accused by political enemies, of caring more about being in the limelight and making a name for himself than anything else. Whatever the political motivation, the hearings for many Americans was the first time they became aware of organized crime and how even if you lived in small town America you were affected. Hollywood, always on the look out for a new angle began cashing in. The 1950’s were filled with films about The Organization. Early fifties film like “The Enforcer”, “711 Ocean Drive”, and “The Racket” focused on the rise on a national crime syndicate infiltrating local governments and setting up legal enterprises to hide their illegal activities.
Robert Wise’s 1952 documentary style film “The Captive City”, filmed on location, captures a gritty realism with a relative cast of unknowns lending a strong notion of reality. The use of a new wide-angle lens called the Hoge used by cinematographer Lee Garmes for the first time created some stunning depth of focus shots used effectively in the beginning of the film by Wise. Ralph Hoge, the inventor, was a key grip on Orson Welles classic, “Citizen Kane” and an assistant to Wise on this film. Of course, Wise himself worked with Welles as a film editor on “Kane.”
Inspired by the true life story of Time magazine crime reporter Alvin Josephy Jr. and based on his own short story, the film, told in flashback, tells the story of Jim Austin (John Forsythe) who along with a former war time buddy run the Kennington Times, a small town newspaper in an outwardly clean typical American community. Life changes when Clyde Nelson a local private investigator handling a simple divorce case comes across a big time gambling operation that connects the mob, to the local police and politicians. He informs Austin who finds his claims exaggerated until Nelson is soon killed in what is supposedly a hit and run accident. This convinces Austin there was truth in what the now dead investigator said.
As Austin investigates, he finds himself and his wife being harassed and warned not to get involved, to leave it alone. His newspaper is threatened with loss of ads causing a riff between Austin and his partner. Gathering more and more evidence, he remains powerless to do anything with it, since the town’s leaders are controlled by the crime syndicate. When Austin reads about a Senate Crime investigating committee currently at the State Capitol he and his wife jump into their car and head off the City Capitol followed by two thugs out to kill them before they arrive.
The films ending is unusual in that no one is brought to justice and the outcome of Austin’s testimony to the Senate committee is not known though you are left with the impression justice is being served. The movie going public is directly warned on the evils of gambling when Senator Estes Kefauver himself, directly addresses the audience on the evils of gambling and the syndicate.
The cast is headed by a young, relatively unknown John Forsythe as Jim Austin with Joan Camden as his wife Marge. Ray Teal play the Chief and a very young Martin Milner is a boy photographer who is beaten up when he takes some photos he should not have taken. The screenplay was written by Alvin Josephy Jr., Director Robert Wise, whose career has sometimes been slammed due some of his later over blown work in “epic” messes like “The Hindenberg”, “Audrey Rose”, and “Star” has only in recent years been reevaluated and recognized for the amazing career he has had. A versatile director who has created some fine films in a variety of genres like “Blood on the Moon”, “Born to Kill”, “The Set Up”, “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The Haunting.” and “The Body Snatcher.” Wise, as many know, learned his trade working with two of the greats, Orson Welles and Val Lewton. Wise may not have been an auteur but he was a great craftsman with a strong sense of subject matter and style distinguishing him from the standard studio director.
“The Captive City” is a decent little “B” film with shades of noir, adequate performances, that along with Wise’s editing, showing signs of what he learned from his mentors, will keep you interested for its one and a half hour running time. The ending with Estes Kefauver is naive, hackneyed and dated from today’s perspective falling flat but up until that point, this minor work is worth a ride.