Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956)

Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews with director Fritz Lang

After two decades of making films in America, director Fritz Lang was at his wits end. The 1950s was difficult time in the film industry. Television was a major rival for audience’s time and attention. For Lang, good opportunities were fewer and far between. It also didn't help that Lang had developed a reputation for being cruel to his actors. In an effort to salvage his Hollywood career, Lang met with producer Bert Friedlob. Friedlob was quite a character. He had dabbled in many different businesses, (he was a liquor salesman and even managed circus acts) and became a film producer while he was married to his third wife actress Eleanor Parker. His films included A Millionaire for Christy (1951), The Steel Trap (1952), The Star (1952) and others. Lang needed a producer and Friedlob was ready and available. According to Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, after Lang signed with Friedlob, the producer wasn’t interested in any of the directors ideas however the two agreed on one project in particular. Friedlob owned the rights to the novel The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein. The former  journalist's book was based on the true story of William Heirens, a Chicago based serial killer who targeted women and left messages behind scrawled in lipstick. Lang was familiar with the “lipstick killer” case and agreed to direct the movie. According to McGilligan, the killer in this story reminded Lang of Peter Kurten from his German film M. When William Friedkin interviewed Lang in 1973, they discussed Lang’s interest particularly in films about murderers and criminals. Lang didn’t want to admit it but he did agree that his interests did lie in “social evils.”

While the City Sleeps (1956) follows a cast of characters at the Kyne newsroom at a time when the company as at the brink of major change. Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick), head of the Kyne empire, died just at the time when his newsroom was working on their biggest scoop. A lipstick killer is on the loose. On the story is Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), the head of the Kyne telecast, Mark Loving (George Sanders), head of the Kyne newswire and Jon Day Griffth (Thomas Mitchell), the Kyne Newspaper’s chief editor. They are in competition for the top spot along with resident newspaper artist Harry Kirtzer (James Craig) to take over where Amos Kyne left off. Unfortunately they're faced with Kyne’s son Walter Kyne (Vincent Price), the spoiled rich brat who has no newsroom experience but likes the power his new position gives him. While the team battles for the top spot by trying to solve the lipstick killer case, the women of the newsroom are also making their mark. Mobley’s girlfriend Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) is Loving’s secretary and also Mobley’s pawn to lure the lipstick killer. Women’s story report Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) isn’t afraid to manipulate her coworkers to play office politics with the big boys. And then there is Kyne’s wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming), who is having a secret affair with Harry. Dorothy and Nancy catch the eye of the lipstick killer (John Drew Barrymore, billed as John Barrymore, Jr.). Will Mobley and his police detective friend Burt Kaufmann (Howard Duff) get to them in time before the killer does?

Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell and Ida Lupino

Producer Friedlob's screenwriter Casey Robinson adapted Einstein’s novel to screen. According to Lang biographer McGilligan, "Robinson had no journalism experience; and the script would lack the real-life verisimilitude the director usually boasted." It did seem unrealistic to me that Andrews’ Edward Mobley was more instrumental in solving the mystery than Howard Duff’s Lt. Burt Kaufman. Friedlob and Robinson also injected an anti-comic book message into the story which did not age well. According to the AFI, “Friedlob announced that the film would address one of the concerns currently publicized by Senator Estes Kefauver, that of the effect of comic books on "juvenile delinquency’" and how the film would be a "weapon in the growing battle against the corrupting force of comic books on young minds." Comic book publisher Tony London pushed back saying that the film's message cast a bad light on an entire genre when only a few bad apples were to blame. Fast forward to 2018 and comic book franchises drive the current film industry. What would have Friedlob thought of that?

Rhonda Fleming and Vincent Price

In a publicity piece for the film, Fritz Lang said the following regarding Rhonda Fleming, "She amuses all the male instinct and she displays her physical assets to great advantage in the picture." Fleming often played such roles which were the complete opposite of what she was like in real life. In an interview with George Feltenstein for the Warner Archive Collection podcast, Fleming said,
“We went on to do While the City Sleeps with Fritz Lang. Which is one I really didn’t want to do because it was what my moral values didn’t stand for. A cheating wife, betraying her husband and lying. I almost turned it down but I guess I wanted to work with Fritz Lang and a great cast. But some of those naughty and not so nice roles were actually wonderful opportunities to play a wider variety of roles and not be mixed up in nice and sweet roles. It’s a favorite of many of my fans, these films.”

Independently produced, United Artists was originally going to distribute the film but in a last minute effort to get the film out on the market quickly Friedlob sold the completed film to RKO. Released in May 1956, While the City Sleeps was well-received. McGilligan said "it was considered a taut, well-made suspense film” and got good reviews in the trades. Friedlob and Lang went on to make Beyond a Reasonable Doubt released that same year (a review of that title coming soon!). Unfortunately, Friedlob died suddenly, just a month after the release of their second film together.

Fritz Lang is my favorite director and that’s because I’ve come to enjoy all the movies I’ve seen of his, even the not so great ones. (To date I’ve seen all but four, his two lost silents and his last two films made in Germany). In While the City Sleeps, the serial killer storyline is besides the point. This movie is really a suspenseful newsroom drama. It’s more about the social politics of an office than it is the hunt for a murderer. Everyone in the film plays to their strengths. And what a cast! Andrews, Lupino, Sanders, Mitchell, Fleming, Forrest, Craig, Price, they are all superb in this picture. Even Barrymore is convincingly frightening as the blood-thirsty Robert Manners. One thing I love about Lang’s films is how the female characters are portrayed. In a male-driven office, the three principal women are not simply pawns in their game. When Sanders tries to manipulate Lupino to get ahead, she manipulates him right back. Forrest isn’t content being the spurned fiancee who Andrews cheats on. A brief moment of defiance helps save her life. Fleming’s part is probably the weakest of the three but she also has her strengths including fighting off the killer. The film has some editing problems. There were some loops added for dramatics that were too noticeable to be taken seriously. A few shots seemed to be sped up or shot in reverse for a similar effect.




While the City Sleeps (1956) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection.


Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a Blu-Ray copy of While the City Sleeps (1956) to review!

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