Crammed Full of Genre: While the City Sleeps (1956)

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell, Ida Lupino, 1956

I just did a Fritz Lang movie last week (The Big Heat from 1953) and there have been other posts on the director around these parts lately as well so forgive me if I dive into familiar waters one more time. You see, I tend to focus on the ethical dilemmas of Lang’s work, in movies like M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and, of course, The Big Heat*, where the good guys and the bad guys tend to overlap. But before I take a break from writing about Lang, I’d like to throw in one more post on what may be my biggest Lang surprise in all my years of watching him. It’s a movie that throws so many genre tropes together into one big pot, it’s a miracle any of it works at all. But it does, magnificently so. It’s one of those movies that came and went and despite having plenty of big names in the cast, it feels like a low budget movie shot on the run. This amazing little piece of work called While the City Sleeps (1956) may be Lang’s most purely enjoyable film.

The movie has a cold open which, right there, ranks it pretty damn high in my book. I love cold opens. From Orson Welles’… oops, I mean, Norman Foster’s cold open in Journey into Fear (1943) to Ed Wood’s awesome cold open in Plan 9 from Outer Space (where the obvious intention was to have Criswell boldly state the title of the film which would then be projected on the screen, except it was Ed Wood so Criswell said the original title, Grave Robbers from Outer Space, and rather than reshoot it after Wood changed the title, Wood just left it), cold opens always put a movie in motion for me better than anything else. That doesn’t mean the movie will be good, it just means, for me at least, it gets things off to a good start. And what a cold open!

A man (John Barrymore, Jr.) arrives at a woman’s door with a delivery from the pharmacy. When an older man, the superintendent for the apartment building, answers the door, the woman calls out from the bathroom to take the prescription and send the delivery man on his way. The man waits for the super to leave then knocks again. The woman opens the door this time and he makes up a quick story about dropping off the wrong prescription so she goes to check. When she does, he unlocks the door by pressing in the button on the side. She then verifies it’s her prescription and he leaves. Then she closes the door and goes back to the bathroom, he lets himself in, she screams and we go to the credits.

WhiletheCitySleeps_1956_WTCS-herald

Okay, I probably don’t have to point this out, because you probably noticed, as everyone who has ever seen this film has, but the whole unlocking the door thing is quite possibly one of the most useless devices in movie history because… well, because he could have just attacked her when she let him in the first time. She is literally in the same room (the bathroom) and he is literally in the same position (in the front of the apartment) that they will both be in when he returns 30 seconds later. In other words, he got her to open the door to let him in so that he could unlock the door to let himself in the apartment several seconds later.  Let that sink in for a second.

But you know what? It works. And then, as the pulpy music and credits flash on the screen (actually, they fly into the center), we see a cast list that is kind of remarkable: Dana Andrews, George Sanders, Rhonda Fleming, Ida Lupino, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Mae Marsh, James Craig and, not as famous but a personal favorite, Howard Duff.  I mean, damn! That’s a cast!

But there’s something else this movie has too: genre. Tons of genre. It’s a serial killer movie, a newspaper movie, a television news movie, a romance, a comedy, a procedural, a noir, a drama, a social commentary… hell, throw in a song, a horse, and a spacesuit and I think you could reasonably include it in every possible Netflix category.

Here’s the basics of the story. The founder/owner of Kyne Enterprises, which runs a newspaper, a television station and a wire service, dies and leaves it all to his utterly ineffectual son, Walter (Vincent Price). Old Walter has no desire to do anything with the business except cash the checks so he decides to let one of the three guys running the three divisions do all the work. Of the three, whoever figures out the identity of the Lipstick Killer wins! Our three bachelors are Thomas Mitchell (newspaper),  George Sanders (wire service) and James Craig, who is the head of the graphics division (which basically means everyone says he takes the pictures). Mitchell gets his friend and TV anchor Dana Andrews to help him out, Sanders gets reporter Ida Lupino and Craig, best of all, gets in bed with Walter’s wife, Rhonda Fleming. In the course of all this, Andrews fools around with Sanders’ secretary as well as Ida Lupino and goes on TV to insult the serial killer.

See, he gets info from the police about the serial killer (early profiling!) and goes on TV to announce everything they know about him but also to call him names like “Mama’s boy” because, and here’s the logic I think, call a serial killer a “Mama’s boy” and he’s sure to slip up and reveal himself. Which, of course, he does. Also, there’s a lot of politics, infighting, jealousy and drunken groping scenes played for comedy.  It’s almost as if Alfred Hitchcock, while working on the script for Psycho with Robert Bloch, said, “You know, I like where we’re going with this serial killer character, but is there any way we can also work in the plots of Executive Suite, The Front Page, and the Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr story from From Here to Eternity? What?! It’s been done already?! [shakes fist in air] Damn you, Fritz Lang!!!”

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While the City Sleeps is the kind of movie that time works against. Its casual sexism and homophobia make it just a little more uncomfortable to watch with each passing year. It seems a movie out of place and time and it is. That doesn’t make it unwatchable, that makes it more watchable than ever. It’s a damn good, swiftly paced, fun and engaging story (and the serial killer part isn’t really creepy at all, certainly nothing on par with what Lang did in M) that also works as a sociological document of attitudes and beliefs, however good or bad, in 1950s America. It’s a late Fritz Lang film that showed the director still at the top of his form working with very talented people at both ends of the camera and production (Ernest Lazlo is the cinematographer and Verna Fields, later to become well known as one of the great film editors, is here listed as the sound editor). And it’s a great movie to watch if you have multiple genres in mind but can’t decide on one. Turn it on and enjoy it, while the rest of the city sleeps.

*All of the Lang movies discussed here are available on Filmstruck under The Masters: Fritz Lang theme.

Greg Ferrara

15 Responses Crammed Full of Genre: While the City Sleeps (1956)
Posted By LD : January 29, 2017 8:06 am

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS is my favorite of Lang’s newspaper trilogy, the other two being THE BLUE GARDENIA and BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT. I find it extremely entertaining. Most of the characters are morally challenged, primarily because of their ambition, in one form or another. I especially like Andrew’s character who proposes marriage and then shortly after asks his fiance to be bait to catch the serial killer. Then there is the attempted seduction by another employee in a cab. He defends himself to his fiance by implying that he didn’t follow through because he got sick. Some defense. Is this guy suppose to be the hero?

In the opening when the killer knocks on the door after the super has left I always assumed it was to double check the apartment to make certain no one else was there and to confirm the vulnerability of his intended victim. Guess I should have given it a second thought.

Lang’s newspaper trilogy I keep on my DVR. Oh, and Howard Duff is also a favorite of mine.

Posted By Doug : January 29, 2017 9:29 am

I admit to a sin-this movie came up on TCM the other day and I watched the first 20 minutes…but had to leave, so I didn’t see the rest. It looked fascinating, and I wanted to see that cast working their craft…but places to go, stuff to do. I don’t have a DVR so I will have to catch up some other time.
As for the door lock thing-the killer didn’t know if it would be 30 seconds or 30 minutes-if the phone rang and she rushed out to answer it while he was coming at her, if someone else had shown up-he had to make sure that all was truly clear.
For you true crime fans, the book on which the Lipstick Killer part is based covers Chicago’s Lipstick Killer William Heirens who, according to writer Steve Hodel, was innocent. Hodel makes a good case that his father, George Hodel was the culprit.
Back to our show-I will finish “While The City Sleeps” someday.

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : January 29, 2017 9:55 am

YEAH!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 29, 2017 12:32 pm

LD, he could be going back to check and make sure but if so, once she’s goes to the bathroom to check the prescription, he’s sure so why leave only to return seconds later. Just go ahead and do it. The main reason they show it is because his other victims also had button locks that were unlocked by him so it was really just to set that up, plotwise. However, to do it more logically, they should have had him slyly mess with the lock while the super was still there and then he returns and attacks.

Posted By Emgee : January 29, 2017 2:48 pm

The first time i saw this i found it very confusing, expecting a more straightforward thriller. In fact, the whole serial killer business is almost treated as a background to the bickering and backbiting of the main characters.
But yes, enjoyable it is, one of those “i dob’t care what happens but i like it’movies you referred to in an earlier post.

PS Never realised the killer was John Barrymore’s son, and Drew Barrymore’s dad.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 29, 2017 3:28 pm

Doug, it’s totally worth finishing. So enjoyable and so not very serious.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 29, 2017 3:29 pm

Emgee, I didn’t connect on the Barrymore thing until years later. I think I had to see it on IMDB before I knew who I was even looking at.

Posted By George : January 29, 2017 4:11 pm

“… works as a sociological document of attitudes and beliefs, however good or bad, in 1950s America.”

You know it’s a ’50s movie because reading comic books is a sign of the killer’s derangement.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 29, 2017 7:43 pm

I laughed out loud at that part when I watched it again recently. For those not in the know, when Dana Andrews is reading off the list of things they know about him, one of them is “you read the comic books.” That’s right, “the” comic books. You know, those ones.

And for what George is referring to, click here.

Posted By Doug : January 29, 2017 8:27 pm

This builds on the link for what George referred to-for history buffs, Max Gaines put together comics in the 1930′s and was instrumental in the creation of Wonder Woman among other superheros.
His son, Bill, was the editor of the 1950′s comics that were chock full of depravity and caused juvie delinquency.
So Bill created Mad magazine, and the rest, as they say, is hilarity.
One of the treasures long lost from my life-as a kid I once submitted something to Mad, and the rejection letter was perfect.
“We can’t use your stuff, but things could be worse for you…we could have printed it!”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Gaines

Posted By George : January 29, 2017 9:19 pm

Doug: I once sent a letter to Marvel Comics, and Stan Lee (or his secretary) sent me a No-Prize. These were awarded for especially clever letters. A No-Prize was, of course, an empty envelope.

For more about the comic book scare of the ’50s, read David Hajdu’s book, “The Ten-Cent Plague.”

https://www.amazon.com/Ten-Cent-Plague-Comic-Book-Changed-America/dp/0312428235/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1485743159&sr=8-1&keywords=ten+cent+plague

Posted By EricJ : January 29, 2017 10:57 pm

George: I thought the Marvel No-Prize was for picking out a writer error, and coming up with a clever alibi for why it “really” wasn’t an error.

And yes, there was so determined a movement to connect “Comic books” with finding the mysterious answer to why “Juvenile delinquency” existed–as they couldn’t find any other explanation–everyone immediately leaped on Frederick Wertham’s crackpot psychological interpretations.
Sort of the same reason everyone was convinced Mortal Kombat had “cause” the Columbine shootings.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : January 30, 2017 10:25 am

Ah, moral panics, what would we do without you?

Sadly, I never thought to write in to any comic books but I did get a letter published in Time Magazine in 1986. I think I bought up ten copies when it hit the newstands.

Posted By George : January 30, 2017 9:03 pm

There WERE some truly vile comics published in the late ’40s and early ’50s, from sleazy publishers like Victor Fox (“Crimes by Women,” “Murder Incorporated”) and Stanley Morse (“Weird Chills,” “Weird Mysteries”). Their comics made EC look restrained.

http://www.comics.org/issue/66174/cover/4/

Wertham’s sin was that he tarred ALL comics with the same brush. To him, all comics were trash, and he couldn’t see the artistry in the best EC stories, or in Will Eisner’s Spirit or Jack Cole’s Plastic Man.

Worst of all, Wertham let parents off the hook, and assured them it wasn’t their fault that Junior ended up as a rapist or a dope fiend. It was entirely the fault of those evil comic books. That was a message a lot of parents wanted to hear.

Posted By Red : February 18, 2017 11:13 am

My wife and I love this film. We are puzzled by the door locks used in it.
I’m in the UK and in all my 66 years have never encountered a “button lock” like the ones in the film. Maybe it’s a type only used in the US(?)
How do they, or did they, work? I’ve searched online and can find nothing.
I assume the button was a way of controlling outside entry while still allowing the door to opened from inside.

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