The movie opens briskly with a man and a woman racing through Middle America in their car. The shots provide a lovely, claustrophobic framing and closeups of our characters making the moment especially palpable. From what I can glean, this was actually attributed to a man named Hoge, a former grip for Gregg Toland who made this noticeable advancement with deep focus. This Robert Wise project was purportedly the first movie to use this new technology, and it pays great dividends over the course of the rest of the movie.
The couple continues to fly down the highway until they pull up outside of a police station in a small town to find some support. They don’t fit the surroundings, but journalist Jim Austin (John Forsythe) asks to record his testimony just in case anything should happen to them…
This kicks off the film’s all-encompassing flashback covering most of the movie. James T. Austin (Forsythe) was the local newspaperman in Kennington, which might as well be Everywhere America. There’s nothing too exciting there, but they find ways to keep busy, and life is generally calm and anodyne.
As such Austin has a generally chipper attitude and very little can sour his mood on the beat. He likes what he does and being a member of the local press avails him certain privileges. However, an inauspicious encounter with a P.I. named Nelson in the local library, leaves him feeling queer. The man is positively paranoid. He says he was working on a run-of-the-mill divorce case, but then sounds the alarm suggesting underworld syndicates and other entities are taking over the town. It’s utterly ridiculous. But he won’t stop looking over his shoulder.
That same day an accident takes place in town late at night. Although it’s actually a hit and run, and the man killed is none other than the same P.I. Austin starts to get queasy feelings. At the very least his interests are piqued, and he does what he does best: investigate. His character was built for such a film as this.
It leads him to a divorced couple, Mr. and Mrs. Murray Surak, who are somehow implicated but don’t want to talk. They’re scared of something. This goes far deeper than one or two people. The Police Chief, a genial enough fellow named Gilette encourages the journalist he might as well back off. In truth, he’s running interference for the bookies in town, and some of Austin’s pals even call gambling harmless fun. At any rate, it’s pervasive throughout town — everyone’s complicit — and it all goes back to one man named Dominick Fabretti.
With a conviction to seek out the truth for the sake of his readers and the community, Austin enlists the help of the paper’s budding photographer (a young Martin Milner before his Route 66 and Adam-12 days). They stake out Fabretti’s home base outside of town and grab a drive-by shot of the elusive kingpin. However, the victory is short-lived after Phil is pounded for the negatives. It’s another warning.
The film soon passes the point of no return as the journalist spies a car watching his house from across the street and his greatest allies at the paper start to turn on him. They can’t understand why he’s willfully stirring up the populous. In some ways, it plays like an early prototype of Invasion of the Body Snatchers without the Sci-Fi element as the world closes in on him and no one believes his story aside from his faithful wife (Joan Camden).
Here’s an unrelated observation but watching the movie you begin to understand the plague that beset people like Dr. King who had their lines tapped and were constantly hustled, harried, and intimated by forces in power. Even then this is only a very small representation of this kind of conflict between the powers that be and the righteous rabble-rousers.
Ultimately, Austin feels compelled to go to the local ministers. Surely they can speak truth into the current mendacity they find themselves enveloped in. And yet even in spite of this blatant hypocrisy, the religious leaders do not feel they are able to take on their own communities in this way. They too feel powerless to reach their audiences in the pews on Sundays. In essence, that’s the extent of their powers because for the rest of the week people go and live their own lives as they see fit.
Eventually, we circle back around, and in another sequence predating Body Snatchers, Forsythe, much like Kevin McCarthy’s character, tries to seek help in the present as the story comes back around. All due respect to Senator Estes Kefauver and his civic pursuits, but the last 2 or 3 minutes kill the movie.
It becomes yet another heavy-handed Hollywood public service announcement in the guise of entertainment. Up until that point, it’s a tense newspaper noir brimming with deadly, full-bodied conspiracy. We truly empathize with John Forsythe as the world begins to cave in around him. He makes it take.