Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Panic in the City
Quick Plot Synopsis
A sick man collapses on a Los Angeles street. Doctors discover that he is highly radioactive. A shadowy man named Dean hires a hit man to kill the sick man. It turns out he was a european atomic scientist. The high dosage of radiation and the murder gets the National Bureau of Investigation involved. Agent Dave Pomeroy is on the case. Dave meets Dr. Paula Stevens and thus begins a thin sub plot of budding romance. Dean recruits another atomic scientist to replace the dead one. The NBI take out Dr. Cerbo's house. One of Cerbo's men is trying to get some parts made at machine shops. The drawings are for an unassuming carburetor, but with some odd extra brackets. Those brackets turn out to be part of a "W" device used in nuclear bombs. Some of Dean's operatives die fleeing the police. Dave figures a zone in which the bomb must be. They start searching house to house, disguised as telephone repairmen. Meanwhile, Dean is berated by his spy boss for exceeding his authority in actually building a bomb instead of just planning and preparing to do so. He is to be sent home for discipline. Dean shoots his boss and goes to his basement bomb works. Cerbo finishes the bomb except for the trigger. Dean shoots Cerbo to get the trigger. Click! But the bomb only smokes. Dave finally gets to the right house. He heard Dean shoot Cerbo. Dave shoots and kills Dean. Cerbo (not quite dead yet) says it happens sometimes. Might take an hour or so, but will go off. Dave calls HQ to have streets blocked off and a helicopter brought in. He muscles the smoldering bomb up the stairs and out to the street. Now Dave is weak from radiation sickness. Dr. Paula says he doesn't have much longer to live. Dave hooks the bomb up to the helicopter and flies far out to sea. He dies at the controls. The bomb goes off. Cue footage of the Baker Event explosion of 1946. Paula weeps, but as she sees the city of LA going on about its business, she is comforted that Dave gave his life to save the city. The End.
Even though the bomb does go off, the hero saves the unsuspecting city. The sinister enemy had planned mass destruction, but not by the expected means of missiles and bombers. Instead, it would be an inside job. Only the skill and determination of the heroic "authorities" uncovers the plot in time.
Cold War Spotlight
PIC is the tale of insidious invaders. In this, it shares a mood with many sci-fi movies, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Instead of allegorical pod people, we have a communist enemy with many operatives living and working among the oblivious citizenry. The intended master plan was apparently only to set up the workings of such a bombs-from-within scheme. It was the over-zealous communist, Dean, who pushed the plan into action in order to destroy communism's enemy.
Post 9/11 Relevance -- PIC actually plays better post-9/11 than it probably had for decades. As the Cold War was losing its hysterical edge, the premise of communists building weapons of mass destruction within American cities, may have seemed like over-active conspiracy theory glands. But, in post-9/11 America, with terrorist cells proven to be working their subterfuge among civilian life, the scheme seems like far fetched.
Hypocrites for Peace -- Of some interest is the press conference speech delivered by Dr. Cerbo (Oscar Beregi). He denounces weapons-use of nuclear energy and preaches about needs for nations to disarm. Yet, even before this, Cerbo was an underground operative of the communists, and apparently loathed American life. He was quite willing to finish building a nuclear bomb in Dean's basement. Was this hypocritical speech a dig (by the screenwriters) at peaceniks and disarmament advocates? The thought being, only enemies tell you to lay down your weapons?
Star Gazing -- Howard Duff stars as agent Pomeroy. Duff was usually cast in authority roles, seldom in sci-fi films. But in 1953, he played astronaut Mitchell in the british space-drama Spaceways. Nehemiah Persoff, who plays the rogue communist spy, was also a busy TV actor in most of the usual TV genre except science fiction. He did play the ill-fated Dr. Meiniker in 1968's The Power. John Hoyt plays a small role as a Dr. Becker. Hoyt, too, was a busy TV actor, but did play the tragic villain, Mr. Franz, in The Puppet People ('58) and Dr. Varno in The Time Travelers ('64).
Pre-Star Gazing -- Watch for a young Dennis Hopper as "Goff" the hit man. Hopper played many TV roles or bit parts. One for sci-fi fans was his role as Paul, one of the early victims of the blood-drinking alien in Queen of Blood ('66). Look for a young Mike Farrell early in the show, as a minor hospital worker. Farrell would go on to "fame" as B.J. Hunnicut in TV's M.A.S.H. series.
For Car Nuts -- There are many late 60s cars to enjoy amid the many street scenes. Two that get a bit more screen time than others are the little red 1967 Sunbeam convertible and Cerbo's big gray yacht-like '67 Chrysler 300 convertible.
Bottom line? PIC is a workmanlike crime/spy drama with a Cold War spin. It has the middling production values of a late 60s television series. The story plays out a sort of authorities-angst about enemy agents. PIC has some cultural value as an atomic angst view (from the government's point of view) of the danger of communist spies in the nuclear age.