While The City Sleeps (1956)
Director: Fritz Lang
review by Max Cairnduff
The best compliment I can give a film I take for review is to buy my own copy. I'll be buying my own copy of
While The City Sleeps. As the film opens, a killer
(John Drew Barrymore) murders a young woman and leaves the police a message daubed in lipstick on the wall - 'ask mother'. Bedridden media
magnate Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) hears of the crime and dubs the murderer the 'lipstick killer'. He has the story put out on the wire, on his
TV channel and in his newspaper. He wants every woman in America terrified that she could be next, because then those women will buy newspapers
to hear the latest on the case.
Amos Kyne has only two regrets in life. One is that he cosseted his son Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) and turned him into a weakling. The other
is that star reporter and broadcaster Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) has no desire to take over when Amos dies. Amos is just lecturing Mobley
about the importance of good, truthful journalism in keeping democracy strong (moments after terrifying half the country) when he dies leaving
his news empire to that son he despaired of.
Walter arrives and decides that since he doesn't have the right experience he needs a right-hand man; someone he can rely on to run things for
him at an executive level. It's going to be one of these: urbane Mark Loving (George Sanders) who runs the wire service; newspaper editor John
Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell); or head of the photography desk Harry Kritzer (John Craig). He lets each of them know that only one of them can
have the top job, and they start working out different ways to get it.
Mark Loving looks for scoops, but he pursues corporate deals too making big money for Kyne. Kritzer is sleeping with Kyne's wife (Rhonda Fleming)
and gets her to speak to Kyne on his behalf. Griffith though is an old-fashioned newsman, and he sets his hat on capturing the 'lipstick killer'.
To do that, he needs someone with an instinct for news and contacts with the police. He needs Mobley.
All this and at the same time Mobley is in love with Loving's secretary, Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) and is being chased by columnist Mildred
Donner (the wonderfully vampish Ida Lupino). Between the romance, the intrigue and office politics and a killer on the loose, it's a packed story.
In fact, it's possibly a bit too packed. There's enough material here for three movies, which is both its strength and a weakness. The stories
intertwine with the office politics driving the search for the killer and the politics and search both complicating the romances. At times, Lang
needs to rely a little too much on coincidence to bring it all together, but there's a price to be paid for getting this much story into just over
an hour and a half.
The cast are generally excellent. Vincent Price makes a great heir to the corporate throne. His vanity and inexperience soon have his organisation
internally split as news tries to hold stories back from the wire and vice versa. He's only mystified by why Kritzer doesn't seem to be making
an effort for the top job, though as his wife points out maybe what he needs is a solid man like that who's not bucking for promotion all the
Fleming as Kyne's wife shows a nice bit of steel as she comes to realise that if Kritzer gets the job she'll have bedroom access to both men at
the top. Forrest is good as Mobley's girlfriend - though despite some good lines it's the dullest female part in the film, and Ida Lupino is just
huge fun. The three competitors are each convincing and Andrews is a fine leading man - though he's not the most persuasive drunk, which is a slight
issue given Mobley spends half the movie plastered.
I wasn't wholly persuaded by Barrymore as the killer, but to be fair part of the film's irony is that although the killer is the big story he's
really more of a sideline compared to the battle inside the newsroom. Whether due to Barrymore though or due to the way his part is written, the
killer himself is not actually that interesting - but he does at least get a daring chase through a subway tunnel, which is always welcome.
This isn't a perfect film. The various elements don't always entirely hang together. Mobley is maybe drunk just a little too much. There are some
fairly hefty coincidences. For all that though watching this excellent cast scheme and plot against each other in plain sight in their glass walled
and open plan offices was a pleasure and with Fritz Lang at the helm it's hard to go wrong. If you like film noir or newsroom movies (and whatever
happened to those?) this is well worth your time.