Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Fritz Lang | While the City Sleeps

worse than murder
by Douglas Messerli

Casey Robinson (screenplay, based on the novel The Blood Spur by Charles Einstein), Fritz Lang (director) While the City Sleeps / 1956

If you think Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page portrayed a group of ruthless and often vengeful reporters, you need to see one of the grubbiest visions of the media world in Fritz Lang’s 1956 noirish film, While the City Sleeps.

Based on an actual murder spree in 1946 by William Heirens, dubbed “The Lipstick Killer”
because in one of his three murders he penned a message to the police with the victim’s lipstick, Lang focuses not as much on the pitiable “momma’s boy” (played by John Drew Barrymore) as on the reporters who are out to crack the case.
       Media baron Amos Kyne, who lies dying in an early scene of the work, would have liked to have willed his empire to former reporter and now TV newsman Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), who, a bit like gumshoe private eye in The Big Sleep, would rather lay back and enjoy a drink than get his pet more catfood, seems to have little ambition except, perhaps, to bed newswire secretary Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest). Accordingly when Kyne dies, his kingdom goes to his detested playboy son Walter (Vincent Price), who, similarly, would rather spend its money than head the company.

       Walter determines to find a new exec for the media combine by pitting three heads of departments: newswire head Mark Loving (George Sanders) vs. Sentinel editor Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) and “honest” Harry Kritzer (James Craig), who is having a not-so-secret or honest affair with Walter Kyne's wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming). Loving has gossip columnist Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) in his court, so he is sure he’ll uncover the murderer; while Kritzer, with his inside “connection” is certain he’ll get the post. But Griffith has a more important ace in his pocket: Mobley, who has old time connections with police head, Lt. Burt Kaufman (Howard Duff) and is simply brighter than all the others. 
        Although he is the most likeable and objective member of these news hounds, Mobley, so Lang insinuates, is the most like the murderer himself, successfully seducing the only “normal” person on the film, Nancy, and, like the murderer furtively clicking her door open so that he might reenter at any time. In at least two of their meetings he is drunk, and later allows himself to be seduced by Mildred, while blaming Nancy for her suspicions. Worst of all, he uses Nancy as “bait” for the killer, announcing his involvement with her and hinting of her location on national television. 

By the time Mobley realizes that the murderer can kill in the daytime as well as at night, it’s almost too late; the man keeping an eye on Nancy has left for the day. But, of course, after the murderer attempts to kill Nancy’s neighbor, Walter’s wife, who has rented the apartment for her affairs with Kritzer, Mobley and the police chase down the killer in a scene that vaguely conjures up Holly Martin’s chase after Harry Lime in The Third Man—this version filmed supposedly in the New York subway, but actually set in the Pacific Electric Belmont trolley tunnel of Los Angeles.
      So Mitchell gets the job and Mobley the girl. In the end these appear to be the only even slightly redeemable folks in the entire Kayne empire, but it is difficult to see this ending as a happy one. Mitchell will still plot day and night to keep his job, and Mobley’s and Nancy’s marriage seems doomed from the start. It’s clear that in Lang’s world no one is truly innocent, everyone being equally guilty just for being part of the human race. More than any other director, Fritz Lang, it seems to me, truly believed in original sin.
       Yet, this underrated work reminded yet again of how honest and gritty the mid-1950s films could really be: no sweet housewives here, nor in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man of the same year, or Sweet Smell of Success in the following year. Too bad that by this time, Lang had pretty much given up on Hollywood.

Los Angeles, January 3, 2017

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