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Here's a modern-sounding thriller concept: a scientist working on a top-secret project lives under intense security scrutiny, isolated by his government in a remote and secret mountaintop community. When foreign spies kidnap his son to force him to divulge technical secrets, the scientist doesn't know whom to trust. Our intelligence forces are there to protect him, but agency guidelines rank the son's safety as a third level priority -- national security comes first.
This story belongs to The Atomic City, a fairly daring 1952 Paramount picture that provided America with its first peek into the anxious future of security-conscious Cold War "warfare". A big part of the anti-communist atom scare of the late forties was a reaction to the discovery that disloyal Americans had passed atom secrets to the Soviets. The execution of the Rosenbergs dropped a pallor of ideological doom over the entire country. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations responded by building better and more powerful bombs, authorizing whatever means necessary to keep their manufacture a secret.
Sydney Boehm's screenplay (nominated for an Oscar) concocts one of the earliest theatrical plotlines involving atomic extortion. First-time director Jerry Hopper pulls it off in admirable style, aided by a capable cast. Physicist Dr. Frank Addison (Gene Barry) works to develop Hydrogen Bombs at Los Alamos, a security community sometimes called "the Atomic City". His wife Martha (Lydia Clarke) thinks that Los Alamos is too morbid an environment to raise their young son Tommy (Lee Aaker). When Tommy is kidnapped on a school outing Frank does his best to keep a level head: the villains demand his entire file on the new bomb research. Frank attempts to handle things on his own by giving the kidnapper-spies useless formulas. But the FBI catches on immediately. The doctor accompanies Inspector Mann (Milburn Stone) to Los Angeles to track down the communist cell behind the plot. Left alone with a suspect, Frank beats an address out of the man. The agents rush to Santa Fe only to find the kidnappers' lair abandoned -- and find proof that the spies have uncovered Frank's ruse. Now Tommy will almost certainly be murdered as the conspirators cover their tracks.
Hollywood seemed to be part of a patriotic conspiracy in the late forties, presenting the Official Story on our atom research. The few films with nuclear themes either avoided controversy or minimized the threat of radiation, whether in an attack or from a nuclear accident. The film noir D.O.A. omitted any mention of radioactivity when a man was murdered via "luminous poisoning". The sci-fi thriller GOG showed a woman exposed to an atomic reactor recuperating happily in a hospital ward, as if smitten by the flu. The Atomic City begins with a casualty in a lab accident, stating clearly the high degree of danger involved in nuclear research.
More troubling is the screenplay's examination of the security state at Los Alamos, where every scientist is treated as a possible traitor. To fight the totalitarian threat, the Atomic City has resorted to invasive security methods similar to practices in East Germany. Not only do FBI agents accompany Dr. Addison everywhere, undercover men pose as normal friends and neighbors, observing and listening at all times. Martha Addison is troubled by what she thinks is an unhealthy environment, a city that manufactures death. Their son Tommy goes to a good school and enjoys benefits like a new television, but she's alarmed when he says, "If I grow up" instead of "When I grow up." Tommy senses that it's a dangerous new world out there.
The Atomic City becomes a police procedural when Frank joins the FBI men to track down the spy ring. Suspenseful scenes follow an enemy messenger from a Hollywood hotel to a minor league baseball field in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. The agents use a local TV camera to kinescope the messenger, and the film is shown to a group of communist informants cooperating with the Bureau in Washington. The homegrown traitors appear to be former communist party members and fellow travelers. America is under siege by espionage agents, and the FBI has its hands full tracking them down.
The movie implies that Americans must adjust themselves to a new post-bomb Cold War environment by abandoning outdated notions of fair play and chivalry. Martha is the obvious holdout; when Frank says that the Commies will "wreck half the world" she counters with the plea that Tommy is their whole world. It's a new deal all around. Compared to the threat posed by the spies, Tommy's life is of secondary importance. We're all Cold Warriors now.
The spies routinely kill their hired functionaries as soon as their usefulness is ended. Frank responds to the Communist brutality by becoming more barbaric himself. When the captured suspect sneers at our democratic laws the physicist storms into his holding cell and beats information out of him, just as in L.A. Confidential or the Home Security hysteria TV show "24". The script gives Frank plenty of reasons to act. This justified-violence theme found its first expression in Hollywood westerns, and has been a standard motivator for American heroes for decades. Sometimes real men just need to take a stand.
Frank Addison finds it difficult to adapt, but his son Tommy is a quick learner. The suspenseful finale occurs at an Indian Dwelling in New Mexico, a different kind of city whose inhabitants have also been made "extinct" by territorial competition. We find the boy filthy but unharmed, lulling his captors into a false sense of security with his polite "Yes sir's" and "No sir's". Little Tommy's awareness of the atom threat ("If I grow up") is not a weakness but a sign that he knows the score and understands his enemy better than his parents do. He waits for his chance and makes good his escape, using his size to his advantage by scuttling through Native American passageways far too small for the bad guys. The exciting conclusion is both convincing and uncompromising -- our future will be secure provided we raise all of our children to be hardboiled Junior G-Men.
Gene Barry is very effective as the principled atom scientist. The actor never got much chance to use his singing and dancing skills in Hollywood but instead moved on to the big Paramount hit The War of the Worlds. Towheaded Lee Aaker impressed casting agents as the scrappy little trouper Tommy, and won the coveted role of Corporal Rusty in the hit TV show The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. Actress Nancy Gates (Comanche Station, Some Came Running) makes the brightest impression as Tommy's teacher, who is at first unaware that her pupil has been kidnapped, and then accompanies the FBI on the first leg of the Los Angeles manhunt. 1
The Atomic City was the first of a cautious string of film stories about nuclear extortion, a subject that remained touchy throughout the Eisenhower decade. International crooks kidnap a nuclear scientist to hold the World For Ransom in Robert Aldrich's first independent feature; he followed it up with an adaption of the Mickey Spillane novel Kiss Me Deadly, in which gangsters steal not heroin but an indefinable, allegorical nuclear doomsday device. Serious nuclear criminals flourished in TV dramas, but with the Kennedy years the subject was subsumed into the Cold War escapism of Ian Fleming's James Bond 007 series. The Atomic City is unique in that it examines and criticizes the new security mindset that would conceal our atomic research and weapons programs behind a sinister veil of Top Secrecy.
Olive Films' DVD of The Atomic City is in great shape, with a perfect picture and a crystal clear audio track -- the film didn't see many reissues and wasn't heavily syndicated to television. Olive Films manages to pull an arresting cover image out of the film's unimaginative original release artwork for this key film from the early years of the atomic age.
The disc carries no extras. A rather good trailer for The Atomic City can be seen online at this TCM link. Note that the narrator and the tone of paniic is similar to the trailer for the Sci-Fi classic Invaders from Mars.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Atomic City rates:
1. The FBI men tracking the Commie messenger drive down Beverly Blvd. West from La Brea Avenue -- many buildings are still the same. Later, the "Santa Fe" hideout of the conspirators is actually a residential neighborhood just south of Paramount Studios -- about four blocks from Savant's house. It's the first image shown in the Atomic City trailer.
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T'was Ever Thus.