Friday, 16 December 2016

THE ATOMIC CITY













d. Jerry Hopper (1952)

The Atomic City starts with footage of test explosions and Hiroshima and of the men and women who live and work at the Los Alamos Atomic Research Site, their faces blacked out ‘for security reasons’. Obviously, they don’t really want to be developing weaponry with the capacity to destroy the world and everything on it, but, while the ‘spirit of aggression is not yet dead in the world’ they simply have to do it.

When leading scientist Frank Harrington’s son Tommy is kidnapped, Harrington knows immediately what the ransom will be: secrets. He and his wife try to handle things without informing the authorities but, very quickly, the Harringtons learn that they themselves are under constant observation, and even their best friend is an undercover FBI agent who has infiltrated their family in order to keep a close eye on them. What follows is a taut, well scripted story with some surprising flashes of violence and cruelty: a communist courier is killed by a car bomb once he delivers his message; Dr Harrington extracts a confession using his fists; the boy, Tommy, is bricked up in a cave in the Jemez mountains* and left to die (this last one is hard to take, he’s a nice little feller) .

The Harringtons are only interested in getting their son back, of course, but, for more or less everybody else the stated priorities are, in order of importance: maintain security; catch the spies; save the kid. Cold or not, it’s still a war. In the end, they manage to more or less do all three, but not until after a great climax in which Tommy is left hanging from a cliff face.  Even though you know it will work out in the end, it’s genuinely breathless stuff, particularly as Tommy is just so gosh darned cute.    

* This area is a designated national park, and the mountains, caves and the ruins of Pueblo American civilisation here are used to provide a fascinating and unusual backdrop to the action.  

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