Fritz Lang, 1956
Starring: Dana Andrews, George Sanders, Rhonda Fleming, John Drew Barrymore, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price
Based on The Bloody Spur, journalist Charles Einstein’s novel about real-life Lipstick Killer William Heirens, Lang revisits some of the themes he first introduced in M (1931), another film about a serial killer that was inspired by real events. Media mogul Amos Kyne dies of natural causes while he is in the middle of trying to find a successor. The company passes to his spoiled son Walter, who immediately stirs up competition among the division heads to see who will help run the company as executive director. It is between the newspaper’s editor, the wire service chief, and head photographer, all of whom are plotting, backstabbing, and forming allegiances.
The editor’s main ally is famous reporter Edward Mobley, who is more interested in a current string of crimes committed by the “Lipstick Killer.” This murderer breaks into women’s homes, strangles them to death, and leaves messages in their lipstick. Realizing the importance of the story, Walter Kynes decrees that whichever man is the first to identify the Lipstick Killer will become head of the company. Mobley, who has recently become engaged to a secretary at the paper, Nancy, decides to use her for bait after mocking the killer live on air.
This is unlike many of Lang’s other films in the sense that it lacks the usual sense of dramatic visual style and cinematic innovation. The elaborate sets and chiaroscuro lighting are replaced by some very basic, workmanlike, almost television show-style sets. In some ways the film feels tired -- as Mobley’s character often expresses -- and this is probably due to the fact that While the City Sleeps was one of Lang’s final films for Hollywood and he left America soon after. He was a difficult director to work with and notoriously hated the American studio system. I can’t help but feel that the political events occurring in the newsroom are both a commentary on Lang’s hatred for the Hollywood system and the related issues surrounding McCarthyism.
The film also extends some of the themes he introduced in the Dr. Mabuse series. While those addressed issues of fascism and surveillance, While the City Sleeps takes a cold, hard look at the American media industry -- newspapers, television, radio, and photography -- and presents it as a cynical business driven by men purely interested in profit and sensationalism. This is in a loose, film noir, media-focused trilogy alongside The Blue Dahlia and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, though While the City Sleeps is certainly the most accomplished.
As with M, it has very few characters that could be described as decent or likable people. Most of the main characters are self-motivated back stabbers, less interested in the welfare of the killer’s victims and more concerned with getting a promotion, breaking a story, and making money. They show the same regard for their romantic relationships and infidelity is a constant theme. The murderer is often paralleled with the men in the newsroom and their callous use of women, namely, and most uncomfortably, Mobley’s manipulative and almost predatory relationship with his young and innocent fiancée.
Lang made the seminal M, perhaps the first film about a serial killer, and some of it is echoed here during the subway chase scene towards the film’s conclusion. As far as other important serial killer movies go, While the City Sleeps predates Hitchcock’s Psycho by several years and also features a killer with mommy issues. Lang deals with the subject completely differently than Hitchcock and ambiguously introduces the killer’s mother. While this destroys some of the mystery, this also removes some of the blame from his mother and makes the Lipstick Killer seem more bent by society in general than by upbringing alone, unlike the isolated Norman Bates.
Dana Andrews (Laura) gives one of his most likable and animated performances as Mobley, delivering quick dialogue and stirring the pot even though he professes not to care about the newspaper’s succession issues. While Andrews carries the film, there are a number of excellent supporting performances. The always wonderful George Sanders (The Lodger, The Picture of Dorian Gray) is excellent as the callous, manipulative Mark Loving, but isn’t given enough screen time. Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach, It’s a Wonderful Life) is Mobley’s partner in crime and James Craig (The Devil and Daniel Webster), is the lazy, no good photographer sleeping with the boss’s wife.
Vincent Price is very good in here in a more complex role than usual. While Walter Kyne begins as a spoiled, lazy playboy, a similar character to Price’s role in Laura, he quickly transforms into something more ruthless and driven. Though around this period America began to associate him with horror films and villainous roles, here he is simply a bored socialite attempting to rise above his privileged, though dull life. John Drew Barrymore (Thunderbirds) also puts in a brief, but compelling performance as the Lipstick Killer.
The few women in the film nearly steal it away from Andrews, particularly the underrated Ida Lupino (They Drive By Night, High Sierra) as the pleasantly conniving Mildred Donner. She is the only female character to go toe-to-toe with the men and has frank conversations about sex that seem more modern than the a ‘50s film would normally allow. The very sexy Rhonda Fleming (Spellbound, Out of the Past, The Spiral Staircase) brings elements of fun and humor to the film as Kyne’s unfaithful wife Dorothy. Sally Forrest (The Strange Door) as the virginal Nancy sadly pales in comparison to Lupino and Fleming, but benefits from a well-written character.
While the City Sleeps may not be one of Lang’s classic films, but comes highly recommended and deserves to be seen for its pessimistic look at post-war America and the emerging modern media industry. Though there is no definitive edition (Criterion, what gives?), While the City Sleeps was released on DVD as part of RKO’s Archive Collection along with his other final American film, the similarly themed Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).