Monday, October 6, 2014

Cult Movie Theatre: The Atomic City

Having recently enjoyed Gene Barry portraying a meticulous murderer, I decided to check out other films made by the star of Bat Masterson and Burke's Law. That's how I stumbled upon his film debut, The Atomic City, a taut 1952 suspense film that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Story and Screenplay.

Barry and Lydia Clarke as the parents.
Barry plays Dr. Frank Addison,  a nuclear scientist who lives in Los Alamos, New Mexico, with his wife Martha (Lydia Clarke) and seven-year-old son Tommy (Lee Aaker). Dr. Addison is one of the top scientists at a top-secret government facility dedicated to creating the atomic bomb. When Tommy is kidnapped, it quickly becomes apparent that the culprits don't want money for the ransom--they want what's inside Dr. Addison's head.

When the FBI gets involved, they explain to Addison their priorities are to keep our enemies from getting the bomb, apprehend the people responsible, and return Tommy safely to his family. Addison, realizing what this means, confirms to himself: "That's the order of their importance. One. Two. Three. Tommy's number three."

The Addison clinch as the camera
moves in on the kidnappers' note.
The Atomic City seems like the kind of film that would have attracted Hitchcock. In fact, there's one scene that rivals Hitch at his best and it's set up beautifully. Tommy spends the morning talking about bicycles because he hopes to win one during a school field trip to the Santa Fe Fiesta. After the children watch a puppet show, the big moment comes and Tommy's ticket number is called. But there are no shouts of joy, only silence. When his teacher turns around to look for Tommy, his seat is empty. Tommy's teacher searches frantically for Tommy, but cannot find him at the festival. When she calls the Addisons, Tommy's father says that his mother picked up their son. Only after Dr. Addison hangs up do we see the printed message delivered to the parents: "Tommy is our guest. You will get details about it tonight at the dance."

Journeyman director Jerry Hopper makes excellent use of the setting. The camera lingers on the "restricted" and "contaminated" signs in Los Alamos as the children skip playfully past them. Mrs. Addison, Tommy, and Tommy's friend are oblivious when a "routine" bomb test shakes their house--though it greatly alarms a TV delivery man. Outside the city, the southwestern architecture, the mountains, and caves give the film a unique look.

For the most part, the script effectively captures the detailed procedures required to track down a spy network responsible for a kidnapping. For example, having filmed the enemy's pickup man interacting with other people at a baseball game, the FBI shows the footage to a group of undercover "party members." They sit in a darkened room in separate booths that prevent each one from seeing the individuals surrounding them. Precautions must be taken--even within the safe confines of the FBI headquarters.

Perhaps because of this methodical approach, the occasional gaffes tend to stand out. For example, Martha Addison complains about the FBI providing security every time the family ventures outside Los Alamos. So, why weren't security personnel covering the school children's field trip? And since the Addisons receive a second kidnapping note at the dance, it's apparent that there's a spy within the confines of the "Atomic City," a critical point that's forgotten as the plot focuses on capturing Tommy's kidnappers.

Bert Freed later played Columbo.
Still, these are minor quibbles with a modest film that far exceeds expectations. The ensemble cast is convincing and contains many familiar faces in addition to Barry. It includes: Milburn Stone (Doc on Gunsmoke); Frank Cady (Sam Drucker on Green Acres); and Lee Aaker (Rusty on The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin). Bert Freed plays one of the bad guys. As discussed in a post earlier this year, Freed originated the role of Lt. Columbo in an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show with Richard Carlson as a murderous psychiatrist. Years later, that episode was revamped as the Columbo TV-movie Prescription: Murder--with Gene Barry in the Carlson role.

Sydney Boehm, who earned that Oscar nomination for writing The Atomic City, is probably best remembered for Fritz Lang's classic film noir The Big Heat. His other credits include When Worlds Collide, Union Station, and Violent Saturday.


  1. I've been a huge fan of this movie since kiddy days. I would imagine it has something to do with the presence of Corporal Rusty and Doc. However, I do have a fondness for the good old days when commies were commies and men were men.

  2. "The Atomic City" is fascinating on many levels. It was pretty frightening to hear the count and realize young Tommy only ranked third in the list of priorities. He proves to be quite resourceful in his own rights and needs to be. There are some tense moments when he is trying to escape from his kidnappers. A sequel set 30 years in the future might have proved to be quite compelling as well. This is an interesting, lesser known movie that is worth one's time viewing.