They don’t, as they say, make films like they used to. While The City Sleeps may be over half a century old, and shows its age in every frame; but it is also surprisingly modern – perhaps even prophetic in some respects. Yet, despite some outright weirdness, and a somewhat charisma-free leading man, it still manages to crackle with that old 1950s’ Hollywood machinegun repartee. What Fritz Lang brought to this movie – other than the trademark expressionist skyline of New York which opens the film – I’m not entirely sure. I suspect it’s the intelligence of the story and the rigorous logic of the plot – almost as if nothing ended up on the cutting-room floor. This is a film, while not simple or especially complicated, which makes sense from start to finish. And that makes for a welcome change to modern Hollywood product…
Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews) is a television correspondent for the Kyne media empire, a Pulitzer prize winner, and an ex-star reporter now happily resting on his laurels. When Amos Kyne, head of the empire dies, his son, Walter Kyne (Vincent Price), a profligate playboy, takes over. Kyne doesn’t know enough about running the business, and is painfully aware of it. However, he has a cunning plan. A young woman had been murdered – her murder comprises the opening of the film – and the police suspect she may have been the victim of a serial killer.
Kyne’s media empire has already dubbed the murderer the ‘lipstick killer’ (because he left a message written in lipstick on his victim’s wall). Kyne decides that the heads of the three arms of his media empire – Mark Loving (George Sanders), wire-service boss; John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), newspaper editor; and Harry Kritzer (James Craig), head of the photographic bureau – must discover the identity of the killer. The one who does so will become Kyne’s executive director.
Griffith enlists Mobley, who has a contact in the police, Lieutenant Burt Kaufman (Howard Duff), the detective in charge of the investigation. Together they hatch a plot: Mobley’s fiancée, Loving’s secretary Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest), will act as bait for the killer. Mobley will insult the murderer on his television show, then publicise his engagement to Nancy, and that should draw the killer to her. This plan only works because Mobley and Kaufman put together a behavioural profile of the killer, something which didn’t become common practice in police investigations until decades later.
Loving meanwhile has pinned his hopes on a huge television deal with a mid-western company. If he pulls it off, then he expects Kyne to pick him to be the executive director. He also recruits columnist Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) to his cause. And Kritzer, who knows Kyne socially, has an entirely different plan: he will play the ‘friend card’ for all it’s worth. The fact he’s having an affair with Kyne’s wife, Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming), can only help matters – until she turns on him and tells him she will back his power-play providing he becomes her creature.
Lang stitches these three plots together into a fast-paced story, in which the conspiring of one group impacts the other two, and vice versa. But it’s not all relentless journalistic shenanigans. Mobley, who appears a little too louche to really convince as a sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued reporter, spends several scenes in the film drunk. There’s a bar near the office, where they meet up and drink, and Mobley clearly enjoys his highballs a great deal too much.
It’s an odd Hollywood film which shows its leading-man in his cups – without it actually impairing the plot – at different points during its 95-minute length. Also remarkable is that the serial killer does indeed fall for Mobley’s plot, but is frustrated – and instead attacks Dorothy. The love-nest she shares with Kritzer is located opposite Nancy’s apartment. But Dorothy fights off the killer. He fails; he is beaten by a woman.
It’s tempting to apply the Bechdel test to While The City Sleeps. Was Hollywood as backward 50 years ago as popular perception insists? Sexual equality is supposed to have improved in the past half-century, although modern Hollywood films routinely fail Bechdel’s test.
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True, the three female characters in While The City Sleeps are all love-interests, and their interactions with their men-folk are characterised by their relationships… But Dorothy wants to be the power behind Kritzer’s throne, and also manages to fight off a serial killer. Nancy plays bait for Kaufman’s trap, knowing exactly what it might entail, and is involved in its planning. And Mildred is one of the conspirators… So yes, the film passes, albeit more in the letter than the spirit.
While The City Sleeps is a clever journalistic thriller, with snappy dialogue and well-drawn characters. Lang brings a characteristic rigour to the plotting and pessimism to the story, although perhaps not so much of his style is evident in the camerawork. It’s a smarter piece of work than many of its contemporaries – not unexpected, given its director – and certainly entertaining. But it’s also a film that’s only going to appeal to those who enjoy 50-year-old noir-ish films. It’s an historical document, and it’s set in another country. They did things differently there.