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One of my favorites by Fritz Lang, "While the City Sleeps" is also one of
the neglected masterworks of 1950s American cinema, a decade as you may know
full of insight and social criticism (e.g. "Ace in the Hole", "Bigger Than
Life", "Phenix City Story", etc.) It was Lang's penultimate American film
and one of his personal favorites.
The film, a dazzling allegory on media manipulation and modernity may not work on single viewing and perhaps that's why it's so underrated, despite a superb cast: Dana Andrews, George Sanders, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, Mae Marsh, Rhonda Fleming and John Drew Barrymore(the son of the great John Barrymore).
In discussing the picture, Lang often compared it to his German masterpiece, "M"(1931) and the comparison is not inapt. In "M", Peter Lorre's Hans Beckert terrorizes the whole city and creates a paranoia among its citizens. In "While the City Sleeps", Manners's crimes mainly function as a gimmick for the press to sell papers while the normal life in the city seems to continue. Rather than simply conveying the necessary information in "M", the media here in "While the City Sleeps" (consisting of an interplay between television and newspaper) is much more ironic and cynical: they use Manners and his victims to terrify the public to sell more papers, something that is equally true today as it was back in 1956.
Not to be missed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is my favorite film of all time on the absorbing subject of how to and how not to run a newspaper, after "The Fountainhead". The very clever main plot concerns what happens at the Kyne News Service when its founder/boss dies suddenly; his corrupt heir soon decides to stage a contest among the heads of the Service's three divisions--to keep them under his thumb while he pretends to be boss--while Ed Mobley, the boss's former heir-apparent refuses to ask to participate. The machinations of the three aspirants are then played out against Mobley's pursuit of a rapist known as 'The Lipstick Killer" and Mobley's pursuit of his skittish fiancée who has her own doubts about him and the situation. The authors of the piece in the first half of the film seem to my standards do have done better than anyone else ever has in presenting the point of view of those who define, cover and are affected by 'the news'--news of the day or more lasting sorts. This classy but never glossy B/W film was very well directed by veteran Fritz Lang, with screenplay credited to Charles Einstein and Casey Robinson. The sets by Joel Mills are very good, lighting is excellent, and the costumes by Norma and music (by Herschel Burke-Gilbert)are seamlessly good. But the fascinating element in the film for me is the very good acting Lang gets from a mixed cast of young and veteran performers. Fine actor Robert Warwick's demise as Amos Kyne leaves his son Vincent Price, wonderfully unprincipled, in charge of his empire. As the three division heads, the viewer has the fun of watching George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell and James Craig, with the ladies who complicate their lives being hard-boiled Ida Lupino, Rhonda Fleming, at her best in every sense, and lovely young Sally Forrest. Everyone is very good indeed. Mobley is played very well by Dana Andrews. John Drew Barrymore is the killer, in his first major role, and his long-suffering mother is played by Mae Marsh. The climax of the film comes when the killer stalks Mobley's fiancée, and he has to wonder even if he succeeds in setting her up in a successful trap ( rigged for the man who's already stalking her thanks to his having taunted him on the airwaves) whether she will still want him or not. The climax is active and satisfying; and the denouement and ending even better. This is a first-rate and well-remembered film that just missed being even greater. I never miss it; and my advice to anyone is to adopt the same attitude.
While the City Sleeps has an interesting premise. A newspaper is taken
over by a rather dissolute millionaire who sets three executives
scrambling for a big promotion. They all have different angles to get
the job, but the main focus is on the attempt to show off their skills
by getting the best news on a wanted serial killer.
This is a promising setup for a hard-edged examination of the cynicism of the newspaper industry, but it lacks that hard, cynical edge. The movie doesn't seem to be all that appalled by the actions of its executives nor does one get a real sense of hard men doing anything to get ahead. In other words, this is no Sweet Smell of Success.
The movie also has some pretty dumb plot elements, most notably reporter Andrews absurd plan to catch the killer. Admittedly this is pretty typical of movies of the kind, but that doesn't make it any less stupid.
On the plus side, the movie has an entertaining adult sensibility. Even though the Hays code means little is said explicitly, there is a remarkable amount of implied sex in this movie, and the sleaziness of most of its characters is the most interesting aspect of the film. But overall, this is just sort of watchable.
Tugboats scudding down a dark river nudge us urgently into `New York City
Tonight.' Fritz Lang's While The City Sleep opens like an urban legend: A
drugstore delivery man (John Barrymore, Jr.) invades an apartment on a quiet
street of brownstones and murders a young woman. Scrawled on the wall in
lipstick is a cryptic, chilling order `Ask mother.'
But Lang swiftly shifts registers; the young psycho-killer is but leaven for his loaf. His prime focus proves to be how the search to catch the culprit plays out in the executive suite of a huge media syndicate. Its founder, Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick), rules his empire from a hospital bed in his office; his last order, before his ticker tocks its last, is to label the anonymous Barrymore `the lipstick killer' and play him big. (`Kyne' seems deliberately to evoke another press magnate, Charles Foster Kane, even down to the maps showing his coast-to-coast reach and the encircled `K' logo that could have been ripped off the gates of Xanadu.)
Kyne's power, however, devolves to his pompous, petty son (Vincent Price). Knowing they hold him in contempt, he sets the heads of his various divisions to finding the killer, with a new directorship as the prize. Among the contenders are Thomas Mitchell, editor of the syndicate's flagship newspaper, the Sentinel; George Sanders, chief of its wire service; and James Craig, who runs its photo operation. Above the fray is Pulitzer-Prize winning TV commentator Dana Andrews, whose only ambition is to be left alone to pursue his drinking and his girl (Sally Forrest). Nor are any women eligible for the prize, though Price's trophy wife (Rhonda Fleming) pulls strings on behalf of her lover Craig, while mink-wrapped sob sister Ida Lupino (`Champagne cocktail. Brandy float.') initiates like maneuvers for her squeeze, Sanders.
Indifference to the prize, however, doesn't dampen Andrews' journalistic ardor. Not only does he use his broadcast to bait the `momma's boy' (who watches in his jammies as his mother, Mae Marsh, dotingly dithers around), he sets up Forrest as bait. For all his menace, Barrymore's not the brightest lad in the boroughs, and thus can be excused for mixing up his targets....
With its high-powered (and hammy) cast, its blend of psychopathology and cutthroat corporate culture, While The City Sleeps would end up standing as Lang's last American film but one (the far-fetched Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, also starring Andrews). His following so many plot strands results in a thinning of atmosphere, some fragmentation of focus there's a buoyancy of tone which was decidedly absent from his other films of the 50s, like Clash By Night or The Big Heat or Human Desire. While The City Sleeps tempers hard-core noir with more mainstream motives. It's a slick, entertaining, and at times even scary movie.
Between 1936 and 1956, during his tenure in America, the German
director Fritz Lang made some of the most psychologically astute movies
ever to come out of the studio system, often working with the flimsiest
of material; pulpish fiction indeed. Most of these films were
thrillers, though perhaps only in the most nebulous sense of the term,
dealing instead with the psychosis of the killer or, as here, with the
iniquitous motives of those on the periphery of the case. 'Plot', in
the strictest sense of the term, never really interested Lang, 'the
story' as such being secondary to the observational detail and the
characterizations. In "While the City Sleeps" the serial killer whom we
expect to be at the centre is side-lined to such an extent that
catching him is never the focus of attention. He's the 'McGuffin', if
you like, for an entirely different movie, one in which the thriller
element is dispatched in favour of a study of greed and the
relationships, not always savory, between men and women.
The film is set in the world of newspapers and news agencies, so you expect an aura of venality from the outset. Vincent Price is the vain, self-centered scion of a recently deceased magnate who has taken over his father's business and wants someone else to do all the work. So he creates a new executive position then sets three of his top men against each other vying for the job. The one who 'catches' or names the serial killer terrorizing women in New York, gets it.
Like many of Lang's films, "While the City Sleeps" had the tawdry feel of a B-movie. There is a kind of rough urgency to it that a more main-streamed movie might have lacked. (You could say Lang's genius was for making silk purses out of sow's ears). He didn't work with 'stars' but character players. About the biggest name in the movie and the 'star' of the picture is Dana Andrews, (superb, he was a very under-rated actor), as the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who, like many of Lang's characters, is less noble than he first appears. As for the rest, despite there being two Oscar winners in the cast, (George Sanders, one of his poorer performances, and Thomas Mitchell, excellent), they were mainly the stable diet of the B-movie, though that said there is a terrific performance from the under-rated Sally Forrest as Andrews' girl who he is not above using as bait to catch the killer and a typically flamboyant one from Ida Lupino.
After this, Lang was to make only one more film in America before returning to his native Germany, the equally cynical "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt". Indeed it's Lang's cynicism and his critique of American values and mores that set him apart, that put him, like those other European émigrés, Otto Preminger and Douglas Sirk at a critical remove from his American counterparts. In this respect, perhaps, the only American who can be compared to him is Samuel Fuller.
When media mogul Amos Kyne dies his playboy son takes over the seat of
power but, knowing he is unable to manage such an organisation he
decides to create an executive directorship just below his role to do
all the real work and day to day managing of the company. Meanwhile a
serial killer is stalking the city, strangling young women in their
homes. With this story becoming big news Kyne Jr decides how he will
appoint his new Ex Director it will be the first of the potential
employees to bring him the scoop on the Lipstick Killer, as he is
With an intriguing plot and an impressive ensemble approach with the casting, this film offered much and, although it could have been darker in tone, it still offered a lot of potential to be a slick urban mystery. The story is basically a mystery where a group of mercenary journalists compete for a top job by trying to catch a serial killer. Typical for this sort of thing, the journalists are all hard-talking and hard-drinking while still being likable rogues to a man; the driven edge they have offers much but the film doesn't follow through for example I was shocked by the idea of Mobley offering his own fiancé up as bait but disliked the way she treated it as a bit of a laugh and didn't respond convincingly. Likewise the story contains adultery and betrayal between the characters and while it hints at much it doesn't throw up as many ethical shadows as I felt it should be doing. Regardless of this the story is still good; the mystery aspect is not that interesting and, despite the fact people were being killed I didn't ever feel like it was a race against time or anything. What the story does better is to develop the various characters and draw the drama from their relationships and tensions.
For this reason the ensemble cast does pretty well and features a host of big names. Andrews is the lead of the group and he has a good presence although I would have liked him to be a little bit less likable and be as ethically questionable as his methods suggest he was. Sanders is not that great, mainly because his material is not as strong; conversely Craig is better because his material is more interesting. Price is good in his role and Mitchell provides good support and fits the newspaper editor stereotype. Fleming and Lupino are much better than Forrest, who is a bit weak when viewed alongside such actors. Barrymore, Warwick and others do well in smaller roles but the guy who played the Lipstick Killer was a bit of a pain as he seemed to relentlessly ham it up and skulk around all to obviously.
Overall though the film stands up and is an enjoyable ensemble drama with a bit of mystery tension. The actual race to find the killer is less of a draw than the tensions between the journalists and their partners and it never got as exciting as it should have done but it is still interesting. Viewers who like their noirs to be a bit murkier and darker may be disappointed to find that the script hints at darkness but also keeps everyone likable a failing I must admit bothered me because I could see the potential but other than this it is still worth watching.
While this is the sort of film that will not appeal to everyone
(particularly teens and action film fans), this is a very well made
drama from famed director, Fritz Lang. Unfortunately for Lang, his
success directing American films was very limited and he eventually
moved back to Europe soon after completing WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS. It's
a shame, really, because many of his films (such as SCARLET STREET and
this one) were darned good films but weren't blockbusters and weren't
received too well by the public.
This film stars one of my favorite actors, Dana Andrews, though he is certainly NOT the entire show--as he has many fine supporting actors to make this movie about the future of a media empire quite interesting. Towards the very beginning of the film, the owner of a news wire service, newspaper and TV news empire dies--leaving the future to his ne'er do-well son (Vincent Price). Instead of picking a man to head this organization, he deliberately pushes these men to try to undermine and outdo each other to garner his favor! At the same time, there is a plot involving a serial killer which soon takes up most of the film's focus--particularly Dana Andrews'. How all this is worked out is pretty interesting and seemed pretty realistic. While not a great film, it was very good and is worth your time if you'd like a more cerebral type film as opposed to an action or suspense film (though there is quite a bit of both towards the very end).
Media mogul Amos Kyne dies at the inception of a juicy item about a sex
killer designated the Lipstick Killer. Amos orders his newspaper chief
to hustle all out with that story. Amos's megacorp domain is comprised
of a major newspaper, a television station, and a wire news service.
It's bequeathed to his singular beneficiary, his pariah son Vincent
Price, who hits the ground running to establish that he's not his
father's imbecile offspring by devising a new top executive position to
act as his man Friday and run the whole enterprise, and grants the
candidacy to be among the city editor played with Thomas Mitchell's
infectious presence, the head of the wire service played with George
Sanders' Transatlantic adaptation of his unabashedly British persona,
and the photo editor played with James Craig's old-fashioned American
masculinity. The plotting Sanders and the factotum Mitchell
egotistically vie for the job and struggle to crack the headline murder
case, feeling that the one who solves that case will get the job. At
the same time, Craig is having an affair with Walter's eye-popping wife
Rhonda Fleming, and hopes to get the job through her seductive wiles.
Pulitzer-winning reporter and the station's commentator, played by the
always appealing laid-back Dana Andrews, is unwilling to get involved,
but after all does and signs on to help his close friend Mitchell.
Fritz Lang's 22nd English-language film, which itself, interestingly, is a conglomeration of film noir, psychological thriller and sociopolitical drama, is a complete observation of the modern media. It applies to a media empire which merges newspapers, wire services, photography and television. All of these come under acute and generally cynical analysis in this film. The utter notion that so many different media are all amalgamated in one company scares this film's forever socially concerned director Fritz Lang, who sees the makings of fascistic tyranny here, something of which his own first-hand experience surely made him particularly wary.
The K symbol that is everywhere in While the City Sleeps as the insignia of a media empire. One recalls that in real life, the CBS eye was part of the first successful corporate logo and corporate identity crusade of any modern corporation. It is intriguing that Lang, with his eye consistently scanning for the cutting edge of communications, would give the media empire in his film such a syndicated characteristic. Real corporate media offices look significantly flashier than the dishwater headquarters of the media in Lang's film.
The media show up in other, more esoteric ways, as well. The bar is rife with photographs, ostensibly of celebrities who've stopped off at it. The photo-viewer maneuvered by Ida Lupino, who plays Sanders' star journalist with detached intensity, evinces Lang's strong interest in new media. Even the car chase at the end of the film involves a car knocking over a mailbox, part of the broadcasting framework of contemporary civilization.
Somehow the killer, who is psychologically troubled and cannot help himself, is treated in a more sensitive depiction than any of the cutthroat newspaper people. He is played by John Drew Barrymore in a vivacious and edgy performance. He is sporadically seen, but with intrigue as we almost always see him alone, and even once at his home with his mother, a wrenchingly sad scene. Even the story's apparently most upright character, Dana Andrews, utilizes his girlfriend to get what he wants, which is not necessarily worlds apart from what Craig's character does. The essence of the story is seen through the glass-walled newspaper offices and all the deceitful day-to-day goings-on there are disclosed, as Lang secures his most severe reckoning on the indiscriminately aggressive newspaper people who could so easily forfeit their dignity for control, fanfare and affluence.
Fritz Lang is widely regarded as one of the leading directors of his time, so a look at 'While the City Sleeps', one of his last films, should provide an interesting insight into where the art of cinema was in the mid-1950s. By far the weakest part of this film is its ludicrous central story, about a weird psycho-killer who likes to leave clues for the police whilst murdering without rational motive, but who is ultimately outwitted by a cleverer opponent. This is not a good plot, but it is one that continues to be re-used to the present day. Much stronger, and equally modern, is the irreverent subplot about a group of cynical journalists in a Murdoch-style media conglomerate jockeying for position and hoping to ride to success on the back of their coverage of the slayings. The film cuts between the different story lines with speed and humour, and the dialogue is quite sharp. However, the general level of realism is much poorer than in in today's films, the action scenes are especially weak and there's a stagey feel, even when the script is at it's most sparkling. And while not a criticism of the film, it's also dated by the titanic quantities of drinking and smoking engaged in by all the characters (did anyone ever live past 50?) Still, overall there's a lot to enjoy here, pleasures offset principally by the regretful discovery that Hollywood's misguided fascination with mindless mass-murderers is anything but a new phenomenon.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
While the City Sleeps is directed by Fritz Lang and adapted to
screenplay by Casey Robinson from the novel The Bloody Spur written by
Charles Einstein. It stars Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George
Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Sally Forrest,
John Barrymore Jr, James Craig and Ida Lupino. Music is by Herschel
Burke Gilbert and cinematography by Ernest Laszlo.
When media magnate Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) dies, the running of his empire passes to his aloof son Walter (Price). Expressing his plans to the chief members of staff, Walter explains that an executive position is available for the best applicant. He dangles a carrot in the form of the so called "Lipstick Killer" who is terrorising the city, which ever of the men helps to snare the villain, so shall they be the one who nabs the coveted position.
Fritz Lang's second to last American feature is one of his most cynical pieces of work. Film consists of two plot threads deftly coiled together to create an ironic whole. As the brutal "Lipstick Killer" goes about his dastardly business, the men of the media stoop to amoral lengths chasing the prize offered up by Walter Kyne. There's barely a decent person to be found, even the women who form part of the guys lives are dubious, one is having an affair, another is only too happy to seduce one of the men to feather her own nest. While the only innocent member of the group, Sally Forrest's Nancy Liggett, her reward for being a loving innocent is to be offered up as bait for the "Lipstick Killer," and this by the guy we were thinking was our hero of the piece! Lang is clearly enjoying putting the killers "lust" on the same playing field as the media employees "greed." It's not for nothing that the director correlates for two separate scenes, that of the killer's mode of entry with that also used by Andrews' Edward Mobley as he boozily plays up to his girlfriend.
Oh you men, you're all polygamists.
Casey Robinson's screenplay thrives on adult speak as it sets about unwrapping the characters, keeping the story complex enough to make us take in every detail. There's always something telling going on, and with a rather impressive group of actors assembled for the film, it never sags in pace or become dull as a story. There's also plenty of suggestion thrown in as the narrative pings with themes of power, politics and sex, played out either intriguingly in all glass walled office space, or in the confines of the bar down on the street. Although it's mostly talky stuff, Lang manages to wring out plenty of tension from a number of dialogue exchanges, while the murders themselves carry with them the requisite nasty bite. What is disappointing is that the big chase finale thru the train subway system is rather tepid, which without Laszlo's photography would be instantly forgettable. And the absence of a telling score is also felt, which is annoying since the booming intro music over the credits promised so much.
The stand out performance in the cast is from Lupino, who revels in playing Mildred Donner as a vamp who knows what she wants and plans to get it. Oozing wily sex appeal as she gently gnaws her glass after getting the go ahead for seducing duties, or raising temperatures as she suggestively takes an offered cigarette with her mouth. Andrews is fine, though he struggles to play drunk with any conviction and Sanders is on oily auto-pilot. Price has foppish down comfortably, while Mitchell is his usual watchable self. Fleming looks great, and gets the bikini moment to show off her curves; although her role could have done with some expansion, and Forrest eases into a virginal role, all in white she be the white rose in a bed of thorns. Interesting is Barrymore Junior as the killer (no spoiler since Lang shows us it's him from the off), he does a nice line in twitchy and sweaty for the "Mama's Boy Killer," putting some memorable insanity pathos into a scene as he is taunted on the television by Mobley.
Far from perfect but always of high interest, While the City Sleeps (great title) in terms of characterisations is a Lang essential. 7.5/10
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