Despite the title and the presence of Gene Barry (right before his landmark turn in WAR OF THE WORLDS), Paramount’s THE ATOMIC CITY is not a science fiction potboiler, but rather, a suspense drama set in the immediate years after the United States detonated nuclear weapons in 1945 in warfare.
Dr. Frank Addison (Barry) lives a peaceful, domestic life with his wife Martha (Lydia Clarke, WILL PENNY) and their young son Tommy (Lee Aaker, “The Challenge of Rin Tin Tin” TV series). Addison is a top nuclear physicist living in the high security community in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where someone is always watching over him and his family due to the nature of his work. One Saturday afternoon, Tommy goes off on the school bus for a class trip outside the “Atomic City” community, and is easily made the target of a kidnapping plot. The brave boy is held for ransom, with the nabbers wanting H-bomb information from his father in exchange for Tommy's life.
Starting off with stock footage of a real H-bomb explosion and technicians whose eyes have been black-barred for their own protection, THE ATOMIC CITY is definitely a product of its time, a Cold War espionage thriller produced during the McCarthy era when communists were believed to be at every corner. But it’s well-paced in its 85 minutes and an honorable first feature from director Jerry Hopper, who would go on to helm a number of Hollywood movies but would find a more lucrative career in television, with numerous series episodes under his belt throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
THE ATOMIC CITY makes great use of its New Mexico and California locations (and there’s a tense climax on top of a rocky Sante Fe cliff) to create an amusing combination of B movie elements and noir ambiance. The script has some nice touches, such as a TV repairman (in the days when having a new set delivered was not yet a common luxury) being startled by a test bombing, Tommy’s mother correcting him when he utters “If I grow up” rather than “When I grow up” (which subconsciously sets up his endangerment to the audience) and when Gene Barry’s character takes it upon himself to aggressively interrogate a suspect holding info on his captive son when the authorities’ backs are turned. Also in the cast are Nancy Gates (WORLD WITHOUT END) as the guilt-ridden school teacher, Milburn Stone as the fed who has to ponder whether the life of a child or his country takes priority, and the great character actor Bert Freed (WILD IN THE STREETS) as the foremost kidnapping heavy.
Previously issued on VHS back in the 1990s by Paramount, the studio is now licensing THE ATOMIC CITY to Olive Films for this long-awaited DVD. The film is presented in its proper full frame Academy aspect ratio, and the transfer is splendid. The black & white contrast of the original photography is well-preserved here, with black levels appearing nice and deep, and there is only minimal debris on the print source. The original mono English audio track is also well preserved, with no noticeable setbacks. There are no extras on the disc, but it qualifies as another winning Olive release of a nearly-forgotten library title from the Paramount vaults. (George R. Reis)
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