1950s, 2/4, Crime, Fritz Lang, Review

While the City Sleeps

#33 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.

I feel like there are two opposing and competing movies within the bounds of While the City Sleeps. The first is obvious from the opening prologue where we watch a woman killed by an invader into her apartment. The second is a look at the sausage-making of a newsroom. I don’t find either side of the film to be all that compelling, despite the presence of some wonderfully talented character actors on the newsroom side, and I find it to be a more interesting intellectual exercise than a dramatic one. There are ideas obviously percolating about, but everything feels so lifeless at the same time.

For the first time in Lang’s body of work, there is action before the credits. It’s a quick scene showing the first known victim of the killer who becomes known as the Lipstick Killer (inspired by the real Lipstick Killer from the late 40s). There’s the credits, and then we get the real main character of our story: Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), a news anchor for the television station owned by the Kyne Corporation. When the owner of the place dies the night news comes over the wire of the lipstick killer’s first victim, complete with the description of words written in lipstick on the wall, his last order is to push the story on the front page. It’s the exact kind of torrid, sensationalist killing that sells newspapers, and it feels like we’re on the verge of something like Ace in the Hole, especially when the Kyne son, Walter (Vincent Price), takes charge and pits the four highest members of the organization against each other in a rat race to find out the identity of the killer.

Edward makes it known that he wants nothing to do with the proposed leadership position, so that leaves the head of the wire service Mark (George Sanders), the editor of the newspaper Jon (Thomas Mitchell), and the head of the art department Harry (James Craig) to duke it out. The chiefest of joys in this film is the pairing of Sanders and Mitchell. Both are amusing actors in their own right, and Mitchell is probably my favorite character actor through the 40s and 50s. The pair offer the only real life in the whole side of the story actually dedicated to the competition and writing of the story. They one-up each other, give into their morals, and have wonderful witty repartee between them. The rest of the newsroom stuff, though, is like letting air out of a balloon slowly. There’s a shocking lack of energy everywhere, like it’s just some office job not people trying to climb over each other to get a job, a story, or an advantage. I couldn’t get the energy of the comedy His Girl Friday by Hawks out of my head, or the more dramatically told version The Front Page by Wilder, both of which had an infectious madcap energy around reporters callously and amorally pushing for a story. The quiet way the newsroom is presented here is simply lifelessly presented.

Most of the focus is on Edward and his girlfriend Nancy (Sally Forrest), a strained relationship that goes from a goodnight to an engagement to acrimony when Mark’s lady friend, the columnist Mildred (Ida Lupino), gets Edward drunk and gets him to take her home one night. None of this is particularly interesting, and it drives a lot of the storytelling throughout the film. It becomes important to the plot when Edward uses her as bait for the Lipstick Killer, a situation that Nancy just blithely accepts without question, and it feels all wrong. Edward is the one guy not taking part in the competition to get the new position under Walter Kyne, but he’s making these really morally suspect decisions about pursuing the story, putting the life of his fiancĂ©e at risk without her consent. It might have been more interesting if she had blown up on him about this rather than the kissing with Mildred because, you know, putting Nancy’s life in danger is worse than Edward drunkenly making out with another woman.

There’s more going on as Harry has an ongoing affair with Walter’s wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming), the two of them trying to use each other to win the contest…somehow. There’s also the Lipstick Killer (John Barrymore Jr.) following Dorothy to her pad where she meets Harry which, completely coincidentally, is across the hall from Nancy’s apartment. This is how he finds out where Nancy lives after being goaded into finding her. That it’s a complete accident is such a weird thing, but ultimately a small hiccup, and yet it still stands out. There’s also an old friend of Edward’s, a police lieutenant named Burt (Howard Duff) who had a relationship with Nancy some years ago that comes to nothing. He offers every inside detail to Edward in a way that feels all wrong from a professional perspective. It gives Edward the inside track on the investigation which allows for him to be in the right place at the right time for the final chase.

The final chase, including a section in a subway that recalls Man Hunt, is finely put together on a purely technical level, but the discordant nature of the storytelling has sapped any building energy that could have gone into it. The newsroom stuff is lifeless, and the look at the Lipstick Killer ends up feeling like trite Freudian stuff without any real conviction, reminding me of Secret Beyond the Door except not quite as laugh out loud funny because it’s not a last second thing at the wrong moment. Keeping the Lipstick Killer more in the background, especially cutting out his scene with his mother, probably would have helped him be more enigmatic and feel more dangerous. It wouldn’t have been enough to save the film as a whole, but it might have helped the killer portion of the story act in stronger counterpoint to the games at the top of the news business.

That irony seems to be there, but the film makes no real effort to play it up. A lot of that has to do with the lack of energy within the newsroom itself. It’s simply not any kind of engaging to watch. However, there is something about the visibility of life at that level with the newsroom having no walls to separate out sections, only large windows. There’s also something about Edward’s flippant attitude towards women, particularly Nancy, and the Lipstick Killer’s actions, but it’s wane and muddled by the undirected story around it. So, there’s potentially something here about the rat race of corporate America and male attitudes towards women, but they’re packaged in a story that is simply not all that well told. It’s also interesting to note that the music is completely absent outside of the opening credit sequence when music has been so omnipresent through most of Lang’s American films.

Lacking any real narrative energy while anchored by a half-drunk Dana Andrews who practically sleep walks through his performance, While the City Sleeps has some charms here and there (mostly George Sanders and Thomas Mitchell), but not enough to recommend the whole thing.

Rating: 2/4

4 thoughts on “While the City Sleeps”

  1. I think I saw this one many years ago on television. Maybe. I only remember one scene, where a newsperson is drawing a psychological profile of the killer and says he probably likes comic books. We see the killer with a comic book and his expression gets all sour.

    Probably a different film entirely.


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