Directed by Jerry Hopper in 1952, The Atomic City tells the story of Dr. Frank Addison (Gene Barry) and his wife Martha (Lydia Clarke) who live a content and peaceful life with their young son Tommy (Lee Aaker) in New Mexico where Frank works as a nuclear physicist at nuclear plant. Given the fact that what Frank and everyone else in the plant have to work on is top secret and that they don't want any of what the employees know to fall into the wrong hands, everyone lives in the same pre-fabricated suburb and is always very closely watched.
Things are going fine for everyone until the day that Tommy hops on the school bus to head out of the community on a school trip - he doesn't come back, he's been kidnapped. Of course, the reasoning behind Tommy's kidnapping is that the enemy agents who have taken him want to hold him for ransom in exchange for what Frank knows about American's military projects, specifically the H-Bomb project Frank is involved with. The F.B.I. send some agents out to get Tommy back, but they find themselves in a race against time and Frank with some difficult choices to make.
Shot in and around California and New Mexico, The Atomic City is a fast paced thriller that makes great use of its locations and which played off of the nuclear paranoia that was running fairly rampant in the era in which it was made, as well as off of the 'every parent's nightmare' scenario that Frank and Martha find themselves in. The locations are shot with a great eye for shadow and composition, giving the whole thing a nice sort of noirish feeling at times. Playing off of the fears of impending nuclear destruction and the threat of communist invasion helps add an interesting paranoid slant to the emotional weight already supplied by the kidnapping angle to the storyline, so we wind up with a fairly taut film made all the more interesting thanks to the striking camerawork.
As far as the performances go, if Aaker is a little too wholesome as the all American kid Barry and Clarke make up for it with very believable work here. Barry in particular, best known for the various science fiction films being churned out around the same time as this picture, does a very good job of letting us into his character's head a bit, which in turn lets us feel for his predicament and how he wrestles with putting family ahead of country and vice versa. While the film might be dated on the political side of things, the camerawork and strong acting on display here is timeless so you don't have to have been a child of the McCarthy era to enjoy what Hopper has put together here - you just need to appreciate atmosphere, suspense and solid technique.
The Atomic City looks surprisingly good in this 1.33.1 fullframe presentation, its DVD debut (it did see a legitimate VHS release from Paramount), at least in this country. The elements used for the transfer appear to have been in very good shape as the black and white image shows only very minor wear or damage. Contrast is good, black levels are strong and detail is nice and crisp. The image shows good sharpness and doesn't appear to suffer from any digital flaws like edge enhancement. The picture is clean and very pleasing.
The only audio option on the disc is a fairly simple English language Dolby Digital Mono track, no alternate language options are offered nor are there any subtitles of closed captioning options. As far as the quality of the track goes, generally it's pretty good though there are a few spots where the levels of the effects spike a bit, which might cause you to reach for the remote and turn it down only to have to turn it back up once things get more dialogue centric again. This isn't a frequent issue, however, and generally the track is level and clean.
Aside from a static menu and chapter stops there are no extra features on this disc at all.
A well acted and slick looking cold war era thriller, The Atomic City sure could have used some extra features but looks and sounds pretty good on this barebones release from Olive Films who continue to release some interesting catalogue titles from the Paramount Studios vaults. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.