Crime, betrayal, duplicity and grasping, ruthless ambition. All these are ideal ingredients for any film noir, and when you throw in the hard-bitten and cynical milieu of the newspaperman it serves merely to add a little extra kick to an already potent cocktail. While the City Sleeps (1956) contains all of the above and boasts a cast that’s packed to the rafters with heavy hitters. As if that weren’t enough, it’s directed by a genre specialist whose pre-Hollywood influence on the look and mood of film noir is immense.
The plot involves two parallel stories that slowly converge – the first being an investigation of a serial killer on the loose in New York, and the second a cold appraisal of the backstabbing world of the media. What draws both strands together is the contest engineered by Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) to find a new administrator for his recently inherited media empire. Kyne is a spoiled and idle incompetent who hasn’t a clue how to run the business his father left him. But he’s no fool, and he hits on the idea of playing his top men off against each other with the prize of a newly created executive post up for grabs. Whoever can run down and nail the so-called “Lipstick Killer” will take the honours and the top job. Three men are desperate for this promotion: Mark Loving (George Sanders) – head of the wire service, John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) – editor of the newspaper, and Harry Kritzer (James Craig) – picture editor. The company’s star TV newscaster, Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), also finds himself roped into this race to find a murderer and thus capture the spoils. The actual investigation of the crime takes a back seat – the audience knows who it is from the pre-credits sequence – and the main thrust is how these media types are prepared to tear each other, the ones they love, and their already slightly tarnished morals apart for the sake of professional advancement. To further complicate matters, the personal relationships of Mobley, Kyne, Loving and Kritzer all become hopelessly entangled as the pressure mounts and the killer remains at large and active. The hunt for the murderer draws to an exciting close in the subway tunnels below the city, but the question of who will walk away with the promotion remains unclear until the very last scene. Along the way, the audience is treated to a marvellous dissection of not only the flexible ethics of journalism, but also the mercenary nature of humanity.
After spending twenty years making movies in Hollywood, Fritz Lang was nearing the end of his American career. In terms of look and style While the City Sleeps may seem like a watered down version of his previous noir pictures. However, what it lacks in visuals and budget is made up for in cynicism and sourness. None of the main characters behave in an honourable way either in their private lives or their professional ones. Many newspaper dramas down through the years have used the device of the story being everything, but this time not even that old chestnut holds sway. Everybody marches to the tune of ambition and they’re all ready to go to whatever lengths are necessary to achieve it. Dana Andrews, in between drinks, even sinks so low as to use his own fiancee as bait to smoke the killer out. He is the character the audience is supposed to identify most closely with, being persuaded to take part in the grotesque contest (at least initially) as a favour to a friend. However, he’s a shabby kind of hero who really only redeems himself at the end by finally speaking the truth regardless of the consequences. George Sanders very much conforms to type as the smooth and vaguely caddish wire service boss who knows all the right people but struggles to get to grips with the seedier characters likely to hold the key to this case.
Ida Lupino does great work as the gossip columnist and occasional girlfriend of Sanders, who agrees to do his spade work for him. She has some nice scenes with Andrews where they both let their wandering eyes off the leash while simultaneously trying to pump each other for information. In truth, there was far better chemistry between Andrews and Lupino than was the case with Sally Forrest, who played his fairly insipid girl. Vincent Price’s role is all effete indolence without any of the menace that he was capable of conveying. Right up to the end he’s blissfully unaware that his faithless trophy wife, Rhonda Fleming, is carrying on an affair with James Craig’s slippery picture editor. Out of this large ensemble cast, the most sympathetic performance came from Thomas Mitchell – the old school editor/reporter who chomps away on cigars and lacks only the press pass jammed into his hat band. Sure he’s every bit as consumed as the others, but back of those slightly wild eyes there remains a flicker of decency – and it’s him you find yourself really rooting for. The only seriously weak link is provided by John Barrymore Jr as the mother’s boy killer with some major issues. One of the best scenes in the movie – him watching the telecast where Andrews profiles the then unknown murderer in disparaging and insulting terms – is very nearly scuppered by Barrymore’s appalling mugging and overacting.
While the City Sleeps has finally made an appearance on DVD courtesy of Exposure Cinema in the UK. The film is presented in 1.33:1 ratio, and according to the distributors this decision was taken due to the condition of the elements – i.e. the image would have been too soft to matte and blow up for widescreen. It’s an open-matte presentation, the film should have been presented flat 1.85:1 in the US (and probably 2:1 Superscope in Europe), and was clearly protected for possible academy ratio showings. There is plenty of extraneous space top and bottom, which should be apparent from the screencap above, but it’s not seriously distracting. Apart from that, the image is quite clean and pleasing to look at and doesn’t display any major faults. The original trailer is included along with a selection of galleries. All told, the package is a worthy one, and it should be mentioned that while the title is rumoured to be in the pipeline from Warners in the US the chances are it will find it’s home in the Archive. This movie has long been one of my favourite Lang pictures and I’m pleased to have it at last in a worthwhile edition. I’ve heard it said that the film suffers from too much focus on the so-called soapy elements of the story, but I disagree. The real strengths of the film are to be found in those newsroom and bar scenes – the character interaction is what drives everything forward and it would be a poorer piece of cinema without them. I have no problem recommending this one.
7 thoughts on “While the City Sleeps”
Caught this one over Christmas as the BBC shoved a couple of Lang films on late night, as usual marginalising the good stuff whilst filling the prime slots with dreck (yeah right, like they’re really going to screen a 50s noir film at any other time). Weirdly, the crime element of the film was far less engaging to me than the backstabbing shenanigans at Kyne Inc – maybe as you say this was down to Barrymore’s pantomime villain, but I like to think that it was simply not as interesting.
I very much liked the scene at the end where Mobley throws his hat on the phone (which is rining with the boss’s phone call) in weary frustration. It’s supposed to be a light-hearted close, but I wonder if there’s a serious undertone, that Mobley completely meant it about quitting (after seeing what his low actions did to the relationship he had with his girl) and, having enjoyed the release, now found himself being pulled back in to a corrupt business where every man was ruthlessly in it for himself.
Mike, I’d say that’s not an unreasonable interpretation of the ending. Mobley was pretty jaded by the end of the investigation and the inherent immorality the news racket had been brought home to him.
Colin, the basic plot, as far as a battle for the “executive” position in a firm is concerned, was examined in Robert Wise’s successful 1954 MGM film “Executive Suite”. A film that, at my tender age, greatly impressed me, when it was first released.
Once again an “all star cast” graced Wise’s film, but with, perhaps, at that time, “more popular and recognised” actors than that in Lang’s 1956 “While The City Sleeps”. Please note that I did not say “better”. I believe that, other than the unfortunate over-acting of one participant, the rest of the cast in this “film noir” were well chosen.
Of course Lang’s film took a different path, setting and “feel” and expanded the drama into the genre that I enjoy and miss. Thank goodness for modern technology, that allows us to re-visit and re-examine these “gems of the past” !
I appreciate and applaud both of these films and thank you for your review.
Executive Suite is a fim that I’ve never managed to get round to seeing – another for the list then.
I first saw While the City Sleeps on a late night TV screening over 20 years ago and somehow it always stuck with me. I know it’s not Lang’s best work yet it remains one of my favourites. The way the director makes the best use he can of the limited budget he was working with is highly impressive. I think that fact, along with the great ensemble cast are the chief reasons it works so well for me.
Thanks for commenting Rod.
I saw While The City Sleeps as part of an RKO double bill, the second feature, or maybe not, was Slightly Scarlet. A genuine Rhonda Fleming triumph. I went every day after school, loved both, and neither film has the wise guy contemptuous attitude of any Bill Wilder picture; they also did not have the production. Too bad.
All of those filmmakers did cast a critical, and often quite cynical, eye over certain aspects of human nature though.
Barry, while we both have a high regard for the films mentioned, I understand you have a strong objection to Wilder which I don’t share and actually feel is misplaced, but I think well just have to agree to differ on that score.
Absolutely about the critical eye, but not the attitude. Over and out..