Robert Loggia, Gerald O'Loughlin
(US DVD: 15 Mar 2011)
The Captive City
John Forsythe, Joan Camden
(US DVD: 15 Mar 2011)
The MGM Limited Edition Collection of made-on-demand items includes two black and white crime pictures from the ‘50s. One is a little gem, and the other a rough stone, indeed.’
Ed McBain’s 87 Precinct novels have been dramatized many times, including an entire TV series of 1961-62 and a good Burt Reynolds picture called Fuzz but the first feature film version turns out to be this obscure indie produced and directed by William Berke and scripted by pulp novelist Henry Kane in 1958. (They turned out another, The Mugger, the same year.) On paper, it’s got all it needs: New York locations (though not enough), a focus on Det. Steve Carella (Robert Loggia—actually his character’s name is Carelli) and his deaf-mute fianceé (Ellen Parker), many characters cranking out vignettes of police procedural with local characters (Vincent Gardenia as stoolie Jimmy Gimp, very young Jerry Orbach as a mouthy gang leader), and a plot thread (psycho cop killer) that resolves itself ingeniously despite non-credible melodrama on the way there. It even has a few good lines, like “You used to like me oozing wet.”
Too bad it’s such a drag, even at only 75 minutes. The drama is flat, the actors disengaged, and the whole production cheaper than TV. The photographer does what he can with one or two smooth set-ups, but the final product puts the routine in routine.
Much better is The Captive City (1952), a semi-documentary noir crafted by Hollywood vets. Brilliant photographer Lee Garmes shoots in deep-focus that’s sharp as a diamond on this print. Under the hand of director Robert Wise, every frame of every shot, static or in motion, is crammed with details in depth, usually with someone’s face looming in a near corner. You can get lost in the receding diagonals and forget to pay attention to the dialogue, but that’s good too. Shot on location in Reno, Nevada, the result is a smooth picture of the American dream’s underbelly, and although in a different genre, you can feel how it’s right in line with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
It opens with a small-town newspaper editor (John Forsythe) and his wife (Joan Camden) in mid-chase, looking over their shoulders as they drive to a police station and rush in to tell their desperate story in flashback. They have discovered that their expanding little burg and their complacent lives in it are compromised by crime touching every level of authority and respectability. It’s an intelligent, tough, paranoid, enemy-within piece of claustrophobia so well done, you can overlook the fact that our hero consistently does everything alone, writes angry editorials without publishing what he’s learned, never calls federal authorities, and twice (twice!) puts off till tomorrow what he should do now, with predictably frustrating results. It ends with Senator Estes Kefauver addressing the viewer on the responsibilities of fighting organized crime in your community, but you’re more likely to remember the queasiness of it all.