Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 29, 2017
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.
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!!!”
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.
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