The Magic City of Death

- October 31, 2011

"...a chilly, Cold War thriller about a scientist whose loyalty is tested when enemy agents kidnap his little boy"

L: "Original movie-theater poster art."
R: "Main title of the 1952 Paramount release."

When seen from afar at night--say, out the back door of the Opera--the lights of Los Alamos and White Rock look like Faerie in the sky, a city seemingly suspended in black mid-air from descending to the Rio Grande and subsequently ascending the Pajarito Plateau. The streetlamps twinkle as stars.

As everything in Faerie, this magic city in the mountains has a dark side. Here, it involves weapons manufactured amidst a conifer Eden now poisoned by 70 years of nuclear residue that will half-life itself into eternity.

This latter perspective is the Los Alamos in which Paramount Pictures set "The Atomic City," a chilly, Cold War thriller about a scientist whose loyalty is tested when enemy agents kidnap his little boy. The ransom? H-bomb secrets.

To write the screen story, the studio assigned Sydney Boehm, a onetime Philadelphia newspaperman who had worked in Hollywood for four years, amassing several minor film credits. Also attached was director Jerry Hopper, making his feature debut after years of helming U.S. Army training films. Then came the cast: stage actor Gene Barry, also in his screen bow, as "Dr. Frank Addison"; Lydia Clarke (Mrs. Charlton Heston) as his wife Martha; Michael Moore (no, not that one) and Nancy Gates as second leads; and Lee Aaker, remarkably credible as the abducted child.

In midsummer of 1951, Paramount hauled bulky black-and-white 35mm cameras to New Mexico. While the finished movie has much stock footage from the vaults, there's also the authentic, daunting Checkpoint Charlie-like East Gate. Elsewhere, armed security on horseback patrols the fences. This first Hollywood movie allowed to shoot inside the nuclear energy plant where Dr. Addison works reveals a large, bustling facility--but it might as well be a Buick factory for all the secrets it doesn't show.

Notes of unreality startle occasionally. The Addisons live at 1118 Rose, an actual street, but in a nice suburban home that would bring bitter pause to the families housed in Quonset huts only a decade before. Too, little Tommy is snatched while on a school trip to the Santa Fe Fiesta, which is faked using back-projection (with actors standing in front of a screen).

Yet there are several scenes shot for real. There's a nifty exterior of what the script calls "Santa Fe Cathedral," right down to the uniformed attendant at a La Fonda parking lot across the street. Further, the prolonged, suspenseful finale unfolds at the genuine Puye Cliffs, and it's a nail-biter.

In fact, it's rather surprising what a good movie this is. Paramount audience-tested different titles--"Los Alamos," "The Los Alamos Story," "19 Elevado St." (a Los Angeles address)--in an attempt to position the movie as a sleeper, a low-budget flick that suddenly takes off in the public consciousness for no apparent marketing reason. This didn't work, as sleepers are born, not made. Entertaining as it was, the picture still didn't make much of a boom at the box-office. Boehm scored an Oscar nomination for his story and screenplay (losing out, quite understandably, to T.E.B. Clarke's scenario for "The Lavender Hill Mob"). But only Gene Barry went on to any fame.


L: "Just so you know, kiddies, this is what an enemy agent looks like."
R: "Principal cast of 'The Atomic City' in a posed studio shot--(l to r) Gene Barry, Lydia Clarke, Lee Aaker, Nancy Gates, Michael Moore."

Locals will want to, need to, have to see it, of course. Once on VHS a few centuries ago, it's recently on DVD from Olive Films.

What will strike the watcher is not how much things have changed, but how much they are the same.

As witnessed by this outburst by Tommy's mom: "Don't you ever get tired of the barbed wire, Frank? Having an FBI man on your heels every time you walk out of the main gate? And the signs: Contaminated Area, Restricted Area. Don't give classified information. Don't talk to strangers. Don't do this! Don't do that!"

Add to that the fact that Tommy has been saying "if I grow up" instead of "when."

For those of who live downwind and downstream from Atomic City, the kid may be on to something