Paranoia will destroy ya.

During the '50s, Hollywood spent considerable time and effort producing these strange corruption dramas about little cities across America gripped by crime syndicates and commies. They tended to have stalwart protagonists on a solitary mission to rid Anytown U.S.A. of the nefarious hoodlums who had secretly and insidiously taken over. I watched one of these tonight - The Captive City directed by Robert Wise and starring John Forsythe and Joan Camden – and was struck by how odd these morality tales play out 50 years later. It isn't a great film but it does represent something of the mindset of the day, making it worthwhile if only to glimpse into the lives of a previous generation.

In 1952 the paranoia of the cold war was in full bloom, the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) blacklisting of the famous Hollywood Ten had occurred a few years earlier, WW2 had been over for 7 years and Canfield would be born 7 years later. Anxiety ruled Hollywood. One of the offshoots from all this mass psychosis was a tendency for studios to green light scripts with a puritan bent and crime-does-not-pay message. It was a kind of defacto self-censorship and propaganda exercise meant to cleanse the movies of their apparent commie overtones. The corruption drama was born.

I won't dwell on the plot of The Captive City, except to say that Forsythe plays a newspaper editor investigating the syndicate, who are running the bookie operations in town. The more interesting elements are the film are a completely unusual cinematography style that has the entire depth of field in perfect focus throughout giving the film a weird “everyone is watching” feel and a strange little moral message from some senator who was leading a municipal corruption investigation tacked on to the ending. I was reminded of another (and notably superior) film from 1955 called The Phenix City Story directed by the ever-excellent Phil Karlson which has the strangest openings of the era, a 15 minute documentary about the Alabaman Sin City on which the movie is based. The doc is awful but the film is great.

These dated be-a-good-citizen, crime-is-a-slippery-slope morality plays are fun to watch all these years later and help explain our grandfathers a bit better. They're perfect little time capsules and make one consider what films produced today might look like to people 50 years hence. I wonder if they'll seem as alien and quaint as the '50s corruption drama does to us?


1 comment:

the coelacanth said...

i like these films. although it doesn't sound entirely similar to this, don siegel's invasion of the body snatchers is one of my fave "commie menace/paranoia" films from the era. perhaps more disturbing is that it came out a single year before the birth of canfield, and its much more literal take on the commie takeover may have indeed presaged this terrible event.
the depth of field thing in captive city sounds very intriguing, especially when applied with the intent you explain.
and i don't think future generations will look back and see our current "cinema" as alien and quaint - they'll probably just think we were idiots.