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For the first half of 1951, America was captivated by the televised Kefauver Hearings. A special committee on organized crime, dubbed the Kefauver Committee after its chairman, Tennessee Senator Carey Estes Kefauver, had begun a nationwide tour ten months earlier interviewing over 800 crime witnesses. Their objective was to get a peek into the clandestine life of the underworld crime syndicate, a growing social problem since the end of World War II. Americans were transfixed by the testimonies of associates and key figures of the organizations, which were playing out on television sets all over the country. What resulted was a fascination with organized crime, an enchantment that spilled out of the TV and onto the silver screen. A string of crime films was released in the early 1950s, led by The Captive City in 1952. Directed by Robert Wise, this drama starred John Forsythe in his first leading role as a lone man fighting against an organized ring of corruption and greed. The film had the blessing of Kefauver himself: Wise took a print of the film to D.C. to show the senator, who not only endorsed it but even appears in the prologue and epilogue, cautioning audiences about the evils of organized crime.
Regarded as a Hollywood veteran, the oft-awarded Wise is known for the blockbuster musicals West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). His career began, however, as an errand boy at RKO in 1933; eight years later he edited Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and earned his first Oscar nomination. In 1952 he partnered up with his old editorial assistant, director Mark Robson, to form Aspen Pictures. The Captive City was one of only two films produced by the venture (Robson's Return to Paradise in 1953 being the other) and was filmed entirely on location in Reno, Nevada. The film's subject matter was guaranteed to attract attention with its daring expose style, but it may have attracted the wrong kind. Wise reveals in his biography that he had two anonymous phone calls during filming that strongly recommended halting the project; he never discovered if the calls were genuine or pranks. A Reno police official did confirm, however, that several inquiries about the production had been made by minor gangland associates, presumably sent by higher-ups to scope out the situation.
The Captive City effectively skirts the line between film noir and documentary, making it a difficult movie to categorize. Certainly the visual mood created by lurking shadows and murky street lamps lends a noir-ish feel to the flick, while the intro and outro footage of Kefauver frame the story within a realistic context. The documentary feel of the film was bolstered by the use of the Hoge lens for filming, a recently developed wide-angle lens. This device enabled the cinematographer to maintain deep focus simultaneously for the foreground and background. The results were highly realistic visuals, which translated powerfully onscreen. Ralph Hoge, the lens' creator, was not only Wise's assistant on The Captive City, but also worked with him on Citizen Kane as a key grip.
Wise relied on film techniques, not movie stars, to sell the film. Indeed the only billed actor was John Forsythe, who would enjoy his greatest success later on television, starring in such series as Bachelor Father, Dynasty, and Charlie's Angels. Although The Captive City didn't make much of an impression on American audiences and critics at the time of its release - one critic declared it ". . . an exciting movie with only a few dull spots" - the film is a taut drama regarded as one of the noble early film efforts capitalizing on America's obsession with the underworld.
Producer: Theron Warth
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Alvin Josephy Jr., Karl Kamb
Production Design: Maurice Zuberano
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Film Editing: Ralph Swink
Original Music: Jerome Moross
Principal Cast: John Forsythe (Jim Austin), Joan Camden (Marge Austin), Harold J. Kennedy (Don Carey), Marjorie Crossland (Mrs. Sirak), Victor Sutherland (Murray Sirak), Ray Teal (Chief Gillette), Martin Milner (Phil Harding), Ian Wolfe (Reverend Nash).
by Eleanor Quin