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Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Atomic City

Paramount Studios put out a Cold War thriller very early in the Cold War era. Despite the name, The Atomic City (TAC), things atomic were background. There are no radiation special effects or explosions beyond a stock footage blast in the opening narration. At its heart, TAC is a spy-crime thriller with nuclear bomb secrets as the MacGuffin. Yet, through all that, atomic anxiety and fear of communism are clear sub-messages. Gene Barry stars as a top nuclear physicist. TAC was nominated for an Academy Award. The filming in restricted Los Alamos and in the picturesque Puya Cliffs add visual interest to an already busy plot.

  Quick Plot Synopsis
Within the fenced perimeter of Los Alamos, the "Atomic City" is fairly secure. The workers, staff and their families live fairly normal lives. Dr. Frank Addison (Barry) and his wife Martha, raise their son Tommy as normally as possible. Tommy is eager for the class field trip and a chance to a fair in a nearby town, and win a bicycle. When the drawing calls him as the winner, his teacher notices he's not there. No one saw him leave. Meanwhile, the Addison's get a telegram giving them instructions. Tommy has been kidnapped. Dr. Addison is to give the kidnappers the formulas to the H-bomb or Tommy dies. Since they were told not to go to the police, the Addisons make up stories about picking up Tommy early, etc. etc. Friends notice they're acting odd. At Frank's office, the FBI intervene. Frank's plan was to give the kidnappers some formulas that failed, which only a mathematician working for a couple days could discover were bad. A hoard of FBI men stake out the hotel where the pickup is to be made. The follow the pickup man to a baseball game. In the crowd, the man transfers his envelope to a peanut salesmen, unseen. Exiting the game, the pickup man's car was booby trapped. Explosion. Film of the event identified the salesman as a "party member" and local crook. While the FBI are too rule and honor bound to get tough, Frank is not the FBI. He roughs up the crook and gets the address of where the envelope went. No one is in the house, but a blackboard full of equations tells them that their bad-formulas were discovered. Meanwhile, Tommy is being kept in some pueblo ruins by thugs hired by the communists. They pose as park rangers. One of them turns a couple and their boy away sang the ruins are too dangerous. The commie scientist arrives to say the formulas were fake. Get rid of the boy. However, Tommy has slipped out of a hole he was digging. The bad guys pursue him to small cliff cave. It's too small for them, so they decide to just block the entry and leave him to die. Back in town, the boy whose family was turned away from the ruins turns in Tommy's winning ticket. An FBI man finds out and all agents converge on the Puye Cliffs ruins. Aided by a helicopter, the agents get the bad scientist. The thugs hole up in the cave, but when two of them figure to turn themselves in, they're shot by the loyal communist. Tommy has, meanwhile found a small exit, but it is in the cliff face. He dangles and clutches the rocks. The helicopter spots him. An agent repels down and saves him. Everyone is happy. The End.

  Insidious Infiltrators
TAC uses the theme of spies-among us, which would become popular in Cold War sci-fi. Except here, the spies and infiltrators aren't disguised as aliens who take human form. They're just plain spies and collaborators. True to the sci-fi form, you can't tell a communist villain (or their hired thugs) from a loyal citizen. They all look normal enough. The thug posing as an authority figure (Park Ranger) is a good example of this.

  Cold War Spotlight
The story itself is very early in the Cold War era, so there is more anxiety about the secret falling into enemy hands. Later atomic angst (after the commies already had their own bombs) would focus on doomsday. In TAC, the kidnappers' motivation and the impetus of the plot center of US having the bomb and THEM doing anything to get it. When Martha suggests that they give the kidnappers what they want, Frank scoffs that this would mean THEY would "wreck half the world."

Pot Boiler -- Even though the story is a fairly conventional kidnapping crime drama, the gravity of the ransom price pushes it beyond the ordinary.

  A Whiff of Doom -- A subtle atomic angst message is delivered by young Tommy. At his lunch table, he prefaces his pipe dreams (twice) "If I grow up…" instead of when I grow up. It troubles his mother, that their boy isn't sure he has a future. Nothing more is made of this message, but it was a good presaging of later youth malaise as a response to atomic anxiety.

  Ruthless Villains -- Note that the bad guys are cast as heartless killers. Even their own hired thugs and minions are treated as disposable commodities. They're blown up, or shot when they were done with their assigned duties.

  Noble Heroes -- Note how the FBI are cast as squeaky clean boy scouts. They have a rule book which doesn't allow them to rough up a suspect. When Frank (the upset father) suggests they rough up the peanut salesmen to get more clues, agent Farley says, "We can't do it. It goes against everything we stand for."

  Forties Feast -- For car fans, TAC offers a few scenes chock full of 1940s models. The FBI drive around in long black 1947 Chryslers. The pickup man drives a 1940 two-tone DeSoto Sportsman. The ballpark parking lot is a buffet of old Detroit iron. Chevy, Buick, Mercury. The newest model easily identified is a 1950 Ford Sedan and the spiffy 1950 DeSoto Custom the pickup man parks next to. This suggests that the film (or at least the outdoor scenes) were shot in the summer of '51, before the debut of '52 models (typically in early autumn).

 Bottom line? TAC is a good crime thriller, well paced and well photographed. It is a good movie from that early Cold War era when sneaky, dastardly commies were the focus. It's a film even non-sci-fi fans can enjoy.

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