Atomic City, The (DVD Review)5 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Gene Barry, Lydia Clarke, Lee Aaker.
Dubiously nominated in Oscar’s no longer existent “story and screenplay category,” Paramount’s agreeably modest black-and-white espionage thriller is enough of a time capsule — on levels both semi-universal and specific — that its 85 minutes go by with relative ease. Or at least more ease than what its ordinary-looking villains (forget any James Mason North by Northwest polish here) ace when they have the effrontery to take on the Feds.
The semi-universal level of which we speak (and there was no bigger deal in the early ‘50s) is its portrayal of that magical day when the family’s first TV arrived at the house — back when the medium was still all new and wonderful. City’s household kid (Lee Aaker, later of John Wayne’s Hondo and an early TV favorite of mine on ABC Friday nights, “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin”) is anxious to anxious to start flipping that dial, and I’ll just bet he doesn’t want to watch Clifton Fadiman or some other network intellectual. But mom (Lydia Clarke, whose brief movie career basically ended when she permanently married Charlton Heston in real life) reminds him that nothing will even be broadcast until five in the afternoon — an uncivilized situation that may have been prevalent in Western U.S regions but certainly not in the East or Midwest by 1952.
The specific time capsule level has to do with where the family lives: Los Alamos, NM, where Aaker’s dad (Gene Barry, never very interesting on the big screen) is a hotshot physicist. At one point, we hear a not-far-off explosion (it rattles the TV installer’s day) — and later, Barry laments that one of his co-workers has just suffered a serious burn in the lab. As matters evolve, the story’s cast of characters ends up worrying about creeps bent on stealing atomic secrets — where, if they only knew, at least as much concern might go to sweating out some future “Big-C” onslaught. One interesting plot point has mom worrying that she and her husband are raising a fatalist. Aaker has begun saying, “if I grow up” instead of “when.”
The kid must be onto something because before he can even get a glance at the test pattern (which, yes, I used to get up at 5 a.m. to watch when I was his exact age), he’s kidnapped from a Santa Fe school field trip by vaguely delineated U.S. enemies who, given the year and political atmosphere, must be Commies. From this point on, the movie becomes an FBI procedural led by an agent played by Milburn Stone (three years away from playing “Doc” on TV’s forever-running “Gunsmoke”). There’s a lot of material here that must have seemed advanced or at least cool at the time: two-way mirrors, extensive teamwork surveillance with walkie-talkies, the FBI ability or “pull” to get a TV station to kinescope a subject during a broadcast baseball game. There’s also a notably retro bit where the agents accidentally leave Barry alone in an office with a “person of interest” who quite possibly may know the location of the boy. When, off-camera, Barry beats the information out of this guy, the nonplussed agents can only say, “We’ll have to report this?” It’ll no doubt pose a quandary for J. Edgar Hoover — who can’t banish the employees to the desert because they’re already in the desert.
The extended finale takes place in mountain caves (these assailants know how to play) with major claustrophobia, potential snakes and cave openings that straight-drop to hundred of feet below in scenes that have enough oomph to make you queasy if you fear heights (as I do). The movie at least dabbles with Big Picture concerns: Do you endanger the lives of millions by giving the kidnappers the secrets to save your son? But basically, City’s job was to be a melodrama of glorified “B” (or what exhibitors then called “shaky-A”) status; in my hometown, a 2,800-seat palace played it at second on the bill to the June Allyson nursing drama The Girl in White. The print is clean, though, and Olive has done another pleasing job of making a vintage Paramount title look the way it did the year before its writer (Sydney Boehm) would pen the screenplay for a real classic: Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, for which no Oscar nomination emerged. Funny how things work out.