Monday, December 12, 2011

While the City Sleeps (1956)

Preliminary disclosure: I’m a huge Fritz Lang fan.

In my early twenties, when I first started to discover the world of film outside of contemporary Hollywood productions, Lang’s earlier films were some of the touchstones by which I quickly started to measure the quality of all other films. M (1931) remains a favorite; Lang's expressionistic cinematography, dark subject matter and perfect pacing foreshadowed the subject matter and stylistic touches of countless film noir projects from other directors that wouldn’t arrive on the Hollywood scene for more than a decade. Once he arrived in Hollywood, he also directed many excellent noirs within the studio system, such as The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Clash by Night (1952) and The Big Heat (1953).

So when I finally sat down to watch the remastered Warner Archive release of While the City Sleeps (1956)—finally available in a decent print and in its correct aspect ratio—I had high expectations. And slowly but surely, Lang destroyed them.

The film begins with two events—a murder and a death by natural causes. The two quickly become linked, because Amos Kyne, the man who dies of old age, ran a media empire and wanted the murder story on the front page of his newspaper, The Sentinel. The murder lends itself to sensationalism—after all, the murderer wrote a cryptic message (“Ask Mother”) on the wall of the female victim’s living room with her lipstick. Kyne’s hapless son, played by Vincent Price, takes over the company, even though he and everyone else who worked for his father know that he doesn’t have a clue when it comes to running his father’s business. To establish his power, he decides to pit the three men in charge of various divisions with the company—the paper’s managing editor, the head of the wire service, and the chief photographer—against each other by creating the position of “Executive Director” and then awarding the job to whoever can crack the case of the lipstick murderer.

While the City Sleeps was, along with Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), Lang’s Hollywood swan song. He would leave America shortly after these films were released and never direct another American film. Apparently, he’d gotten fed up with the Hollywood system, and unfortunately, his fatigue clearly manifests itself in his lackluster direction of this film. Every aspect of While the City Sleeps—the acting, the cinematography, the pacing, even the sets—come across flat and uninteresting. And for a film that boasts a fantastic noir cast—Dana Andrews (who would also work with Lang on the superior Beyond a Reasonable Doubt), Rhonda Fleming, Vincent Price, and Ida Lupino, among others—the potential seems especially wasted. The film is populated by basic, low-budget sets—there isn’t a single exterior scene in While the City Sleeps for the entire first hour—that are unimaginatively lit and perfunctorily used. The plot of the film has potential, but the actors all seem like they’re phoning it in, and Lang seems satisfied to let them. For the first hour and fifteen minutes, nothing seems to happen. Sure, there are double-crosses and backstabbings as the characters vie for the Executive Director position, but it’s all done with such a ho-hum attitude that it’s hard to care about the proceedings any more than the characters seem to care.

What makes watching this film even harder is the fact that a flash of Lang’s genius briefly shows itself toward the end of the film, when Dana Andrews, who plays a television reporter/writer who doesn’t want to get involved with the underhanded competition but nonetheless does, is chasing down the killer (who, in another failing, we never really get to know) on foot through a subway tunnel. The scene is strikingly photographed and quickly paced, and even calls to mind the manhunt for Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in the sewers at the conclusion of The Third Man. For roughly five minutes, fans of Lang’s work are treated to a glimpse of Lang’s genius as a director. But unfortunately, the scene quickly ends, and we’re left with a denouement that remains as flat as the rest of the picture.

Lang’s other final Hollywood film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, resonates much more than While the City Sleeps, because in Doubt, Lang was able to give free reign to the cynicism he so clearly possessed regarding the American film industry. But in While the City Sleeps, he was stuck with a script that required the typical Hollywood “happy” ending. It’s no wonder he didn’t try harder to make this film a success.


Written by Nighthawk

1 comment:

  1. Nice, concise write-up on this one, which I also dislike as much as you do. (Nice P.O.V. poster though!) One little quibble: I'm not sure I'd say the two Joan Bennett films were exactly products of the studio system, but no big deal.


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