Take PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950) and cross it with a dash of THE MAGNETIC MONSTER (1953), and you come up with CITY OF FEAR (1959), an atomic era film noir which I found great fun.
Dangerous convict Vince Ryker (Vince Edwards) escapes from San Quentin with what he thinks is a cannister of heroin, but it actually contains radioactive cobalt 60. Anyone who comes near the cannister is likely to get radiation poisoning, and if the cannister is opened, it could wipe out the city of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Police Chief Jensen (Lyle Talbot) and Lt. Richards (John Archer of WHITE HEAT) are on the case along with scientist Dr. John Wallace (Steven Ritch, who cowrote the screenplay). Will they find Ryker in time to save the city?
This movie is a perfect mix of well-made '50s film noir with some aspects which admittedly seem pretty silly, at least to a modern audience. But all of it is oh so entertaining! How can a noir fan not love grim-faced Talbot and Archer working day and night to save L.A.? Kelly Thordsen is their stoic assistant, Detective Johnson.
The "good stuff" in the movie includes a jazzy score which was the second feature film score by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith. There's also some very sharp Los Angeles photography by Lucien Ballard. Some of the nighttime shots and music seemed to foreshadow the excellent San Francisco based thriller EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962) and its Mancini score. CITY OF FEAR features terrific L.A. location work throughout the movie which makes it particularly fun viewing for Southern Californians.
As far as the lighter aspects, I was amused that once the scale of the problem became clear, someone finally thinks to mention maybe Washington should be notified. However, we never see any hint of federal assistance, and the mayor of Los Angeles isn't notified for days! You've just got to love the cops and scientists with their geiger counters going it alone to solve the case, not even bothering to wear protective clothing. The mind boggles contrasting the handling of this case with a 2013 response to the same problem.
And how is it a convict so easily got his hands on this ultra-dangerous cannister? We're told "volunteer" experiments were being conducted on the prison inmates; Ryker thought the experiments involved heroin. Just what was going on at San Quentin, anyway?!
CITY OF FEAR was directed by Irving Lerner. Robert Dillon cowrote the screenplay along with actor Ritch. It runs 81 minutes.
This movie is available on DVD in the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II Collection. The other four films in the set have all been previously reviewed here: PUSHOVER (1954), FIVE AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955), NIGHTFALL (1957), and THE BROTHERS RICO (1957). This is a terrific set which I highly recommend. NIGHTFALL is the best film, followed by THE BROTHERS RICO, but CITY OF FEAR might be the most fun.
The DVD can be rented from ClassicFlix or Netflix.
My advice is to ignore the low rating in Leonard Maltin's CLASSIC MOVIE GUIDE, get the DVD, then sit back and have a good time.