Posted by David Kalat on March 1, 2014
Last week’s post on Jean Renoir’s The Elusive Corporal brought to light a pocket of fans of Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps—and so in honor of that long-suffering cohort, this week I figured I’d properly pay tribute to one of Lang’s unsung classics.
One of the reasons that While the City Sleeps doesn’t get its due has less to do with its actual quality than it does with the sprawling nature of Lang’s absurdly prolific career. He started off as one of the brand names in German silent cinema, and capped that off with a pair of ground-breaking experiments in early talkie cinema, before emigrating to the US and starting over in Hollywood—where he discarded the stylistic panache of his German films in favor of a stripped down aesthetic. He went from being an icon of German film to being a journeyman director of American genre films—Westerns, film noir, wartime thrillers. Then he abruptly quit Hollywood, burned all his professional bridges, and went back to Germany to make some nostalgic updates of his silent films… it’s hard to summarize all that succinctly.
And While the City Sleeps sits awkwardly within that history—it isn’t his last Hollywood film, it’s his next-to-last. It may seem elegiac and backward-looking, but he made three more films after it—four, if you count The Indian Tomb films separately.
Furthermore, Lang’s Hollywood work coincided with the so-called “Golden Age,” when most stars were engaged to specific studios in long-term contracts. Many directors had the advantage within this system to isolate a given performer or groups of performers with whom they had a good working relationship and common creative vision. But Lang bounced around from studio to studio, never staying anywhere long enough to settle into that kind of relationship with any of his stars.
While the City Sleeps has one of the most impressive casts of any of Lang’s American films—and each of these storied performers are working at the top of their game here: Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Howard Duff… and they in turn are backed up by some outstanding supporting players like Rhonda Fleming, James Craig, John Drew Barrymore…
And part of what makes this film sing is the way that Casey Robinson’s screenplay gives such quirky, realistic life to each of these characters. There’s a tendency, even in the best written and best acted films, to let the dialog serve a utilitarian function—the words are meant to convey exposition, or backstory, or character details. In real life, people talk in messy ways, without regard to whether they’re “in character.”
Take for example Sally Forrest’s character: a sweet, virginal All-American girl who puts up with the pervy advances of her boss, George Sanders, while dating his co-worker Dana Andrews. She’s the Girl Next Door, as it were. And what are her first words on screen? “Shut your obscene face!” And she says this, smiling, to her boyfriend Dana Andrews while she’s at work. I honestly can’t imagine any other film that would introduce a character in this fashion, and then expect the audience to accept her as a sweet and virtuous heroine whose relationship with the obscene-face man is something to root for.
Here’s another example: George Sanders is conspiring with Ida Lupino to help solve a sensational murder, and they need the assistance of the newspaper’s crime beat reporter. Sanders wonders how to secure the loyalty of this grizzled journalist. “Sleep with him?” Sanders suggests, without a trace of irony in his voice. Again, there’s a confidence in this screenwriting that’s just astounding.
But before we go any farther we need to step back and clarify what this film is about, for anyone reading who hasn’t seen it.
And to do that, we need to go all the way back to Lang’s landmark classic M, from 1931. Inspired by the real-life story of serial killer Peter Kurten, Lang’s fictionalized adaptation is an epic thing that shows how the entire city is terrorized by this child killer. And in response, the entire city mobilizes to annihilate the threat—sure, the police and the traditional authorities go into whodunit mode, but they are ineffective. Instead, it’s the criminal community who bands together to expunge this unwanted from their midst—and the scenes of the underworld organizing their forces to hunt the killer are justly famous.
In 1951, M was remade in Hollywood by Joseph Losey, much to Lang’s annoyance. Whether he mounted While the City Sleeps as a deliberate attempt to reclaim the property is speculation, but the fact remains the 1956 thriller is in many ways another Hollywood retread of M.
Inspired by the real-life story of serial killer William Heirens, Lang’s fictionalized adaptation is an epic thing that… well, here’s where things differ. Yes, While the City Sleeps does depict the efforts of people other than the police to hunt down a serial killer, and is the closest thing is Lang’s Hollywood output to sharing M’s scattered, disparate sense of point of view. But the effect is very different. This city is not especially terrorized by his crimes—or at least, we have no way of knowing, because the focus of the film excludes ordinary citizens. Even the killer himself is practically a guest star in his own film—this time around, the story is about the press.
Here’s the setup: a killer is stalking New York. He murders young women, apparently in some kind of insanely misguided sex urge, and leaves taunting clues for the police. Meanwhile, the media empire of the late Amos Kyne is enduring a power struggle in the wake of Kyne’s death. His wastrel son (Vincent Price) knows nothing about the media business and even less about how to motivate the people in his employ. Having inherited this business, he figures the best thing to do is set his top people against one another in a mad scramble to prove themselves worthy of being his second-in-command.
More or less coincidentally, these newsmen figure that if they can solve the murders and expose the killer in their part of the Kyne brand, that will cement their claim on the promotion. George Sanders runs the news wire, Thomas Mitchell runs the newspaper, and James Craig runs the art department (while also sleeping with Vincent Price’s wife, Rhonda Fleming).
While these warring forces set out to sabotage each other and stab each other in the back, Dana Andrews stands apart—he’s the anchor of the Kyne TV news, and had been the favorite to take over the entire company back before he decided he wasn’t that ambitious. But he’s got his own ideas about solving the case—which include insulting the killer on the air and all but inviting him to try to kill Sally Forrest in revenge.
If this sounds complicated—well, it is, kind of. Because while the mechanics of solving the murders and catching the killer are what move the story along, and make it a gripping thriller, in the end that’s not what the movie is really about. The story is about this internal power struggle, and the way it reveals the true character of the people involved.
And one of those key people involved is Dana Andrews’ bitter, disaffected newsman–a real piece of work, as the saying goes. The film has a few flaws, I’ll admit–an absurd coincidence smack dab in the middle of the plot, for one thing, but that’s easy to forgive because it leads into one of the most thrilling action sequences in all of 1950s cinema. But the bigger flaw is that Dana Andrews is frankly miscast–he’s just not a very likable actor. Now, all you Dana Andrews fans, don’t write in hate mail–I’m not criticizing Andrews. He’s excellent at what he does–it’s just that what he does is play jerks.
There are some actors who had so much charisma they could play unlikable rogues and still engender audience sympathy–Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda all spring to mind. Dana Andrews’ character here is fascinating, but he’s also a deeply flawed person. Andrews plays him well, but it might have been interesting to see someone like Spencer Tracy in this role, to give some sense of redemption to the jackass who risks his fiancee’s life to help a friend win some stupid job.
And that’s what this glorious black-hearted thriller is really all about–a bunch of loathsome backstabbers endlessly conniving against one another, and casually stopping a serial killer as an incidental aside in their horrible machinations.
M indicted its society for having failed social institutions—how can a state hope to protect its children when criminals are the only ones capable of keeping order?
While the City Sleeps indicts its society for being unable even to rally together in common cause the way M’s underworld did.
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