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The Atomic City
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The Atomic City

The Atomic City

After the dawning of the nuclear age with the unveiling of the atomic bomb and the subsequent "Cold War" that developed between the United States and Russia, American movies began to reflect the growing fear of nuclear annihilation, Communist infiltration and the paranoia generated by the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of the late forties. Among the many features inspired by these concerns in the early fifties were sci-fi thrillers such as Red Planet Mars [1952] and Them! [1954], allegories (Five [1951], Invasion, U.S.A. [1952]), crime dramas (Split Second [1953], The Woman on Pier 13 [1949]) and even comedies (Mickey Rooney as The Atomic Kid [1954]). Yet one of the most overlooked and underrated features in this unique group was The Atomic City (1952), a superior B-movie melodrama set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, within the high security and insular community of working scientists and their families.

Nominated for an Oscar® for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, by Sydney Boehm, The Atomic City stars Gene Barry as Dr. Frank Addison, a top physicist whose demanding work is creating a strain on his marriage and his relationship with his son Tommy (Lee Aaker). Frank's wife Martha (Lydia Clarke) has already expressed her distress to him about living in the unnatural environment of Los Alamos while noting that Tommy has started using the phrase "if I grow up" instead of "when I grow up" in conversations about the future. Frank's promise to spend more time with his wife and son, however, coincides with an unexpected and frightening development - his son is kidnapped during a school field trip by enemy agents who pressure Frank for top secret data on his current nuclear project. If he doesn't deliver the information in a timely manner, his son will die.

The Atomic City is like two films in one, with the first half offering an intriguing look at the day to day life and pressures of living in a government financed and patrolled community with limited access to the outside world. After establishing the emotional estrangement between Frank and his family, however, the second half of the movie shifts gears and becomes a chase thriller with Frank and the FBI in pursuit of the kidnappers who have Tommy imprisoned inside an Indian pueblo dwelling in a remote part of the desert. When Tommy manages to escape, his kidnappers frantically try to recapture and kill him before his father and the FBI arrive on the scene.

During production, the film had several working titles, including Los Alamos, Los Alamos Story and 19 Elevado St., named after one of the secret locations in the film where the kidnappers had set up their headquarters. The Atomic City was shot in and around downtown Los Angeles with location shooting in Los Alamos and Santa Fe, New Mexico and at the nearby Puye Indian ruins. It also marked the first time a major film studio (Paramount) was allowed to film inside the Los Alamos plant for a feature film; the latter footage is featured in the opening of The Atomic City, accompanied by voiceover narration and a title card that states that the plant's personnel have been "masked for security reasons."

Lydia Clarke, the actress playing Martha Addison, was married in real life to actor Charlton Heston, and The Atomic City was her official screen debut (she had previously appeared in a bit role in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth [1952]). As the victimized kid at the center of the drama, Lee Aaker gives a strong, realistic performance comparable to Bobby Driscoll's similarly imperiled adolescent in The Window (1949). Aaker was a popular child actor of the fifties who is probably best known for his role on the TV series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin [1954-1959].

The Atomic City also marked the directorial debut of Jerry Hopper, a former Paramount editor who established himself with a run of solid B-movies such as Secret of the Incas [1954] and The Sharkfighters [1956] before moving into the television industry where he helmed countless TV episodes for such series as Bachelor Father, The Rifleman, Wagon Train, Burke's Law, The Fugitive and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. The screenplay by Sydney Boehm was the only script by the writer to ever receive an Oscar® nomination but Boehm did receive an Edgar (Edgar Allan Poe award) for his script for The Big Heat [1953], one of several film noirs among his credits; others include Side Street [1950), Mystery Street [1950], Union Station [1950] and Rogue Cop [1954].

The Atomic City was promoted as a "sleeper" by Paramount publicists in the hopes that it would generate a major word-of-mouth campaign. While it never became anything more than a modest box office success for the studio, it did receive uniformly positive reviews from most major film critics with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times highlighting the film's strengths in his review: "It is made for suspense and excitement, and those are what it gives. Directed by Jerry Hopper, a young man who has previously done only Army training films and documentaries, it introduces a talent to be watched...despite certain holes in the plot, the pace is so fast and precipitous that you'll not likely notice the bumps. The final rescue of the youngster from a cliff is as breathless as such can be. In a cast made up largely of unknowns, Gene Barry does a fine, authentic job as the Los Alamos atom-juggler and Milburn Stone is collected and cool as the chief of the F. B. I. army assigned to nab the spies...But it is a tow-headed youngster named Lee Aaker who runs away with the show - at the end, at least, when he is struggling to escape from the kidnapping spies. If this little fellow doesn't pull you right off the edge of your chair, which is where you should most of the time be sitting, then we'll miss our guess about this film."

Producer: Joseph Sistrom
Director: Jerry Hopper
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm
Cinematography: Charles B. Lang, Jr.
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Al Roelofs
Music: Leith Stevens
Film Editing: Archie Marshek
Cast: Gene Barry (Dr. Frank Addison), Lydia Clarke (Martha Addison), Michael Moore (Russ Farley), Nancy Gates (Ellen Haskell), Lee Aaker (Tommy Addison), Milburn Stone (Insp. Harold Mann), Bert Freed (Emil Jablons), Frank Cady (F.B.I. Agent George Weinberg), Houseley Stevenson, Jr. ('Greg' Gregson), Leonard Strong (Donald Clark), Jerry Hausner (John Pattiz), John Damler (Dr. Peter Rassett), George M. Lynn (Robert Kalnick)
BW-85m.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
afi.com
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