Saturday, November 24, 2018

Stubs - While the City Sleeps

While The City Sleeps (1956) Starring: Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Sally Forrest, John Drew Barrymore, James Craig, Ida Lupino. Directed by Fritz Lang.  Screenplay by Casey Robinson. Based on the novel The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein (New York, 1953). Produced by Bert Friedlob Runtime: 99 minutes. USA. Black and White. Drama Film Noir

One of the interesting things about Film Noir is that it is not really a genre but more of a sub-genre of films. This can lead to the label being applied to films that you might not, on the surface, think of as film noir; case study, While the City Sleeps.

Independent film producer Bert Friedlob bought the rights to Charles Einstein’s book The Bloody Spur, suspense thriller/detective tale, with the idea of making it into a film. The purchase and intention were announced in The Hollywood Reporter in May 1954. With a screenplay by Casey Robinson, the film went into production in June 1955. Originally called News is Made at Night, the film was originally set to be distributed by United Artists. However, Friedlob sold the film to RKO for a profit of $500,000. After a New York premiere on May 16, 1956, the film went into wide release on May 30.

The killer, Robert (John Drew Barrymore) sees his first target.

Set in New York City, like any good film noir, the film opens with a murder. While drugstore employee Robert Manners (John Drew Barrymore) is delivering a package to Judith Fenton’s (Sandy White) apartment, he sees that she is about to take a bath, so he surreptitiously unlocks her door, then hides outside. The building janitor, George Pilski (Vladimir Sokoloff), is there and plans to come back after she leaves on her date to finish his repair. He tells her that he can use his passkey.

However, as soon as he’s gone, Robert re-enters and strangles the young woman, leaving the message “Ask Mother” scrawled in lipstick on the wall.

The first victim, Judith Fenton (Sandy White).

When ailing media mogul Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) receives word about the murder, he summons New York Sentinel editor John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), newspaper photographer Harry Kritzer (James Craig) and Kyne wire services head Mark Loving (George Sanders). He also summons his favorite employee, former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and novelist Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), who now headlines a television program on Amos’ local station. After chastising the men for failing to pick up on the story earlier, Amos instructs them to label the murderer “The Lipstick Killer” and for Griffiths to make the case front-page news.

Media mogul, Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) orders his top three men, Kyne wire services head Mark Loving (George Sanders), Sentinel editor John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), and the head of photography Harry Kritzer (James Craig) to get to the bottom of the woman's murder.

After the editors leave, Amos confides to Ed that he has made two big mistakes in his life: spoiling his only son, Walter (Vincent Price), and not convincing Ed to take over his business. When Ed demurs that he does not want power, Amos reminds him that spearheading media outlets allows free speech to flourish and aids democracy. Just before Ed is set to go on the air, Amos collapses and dies. Ed goes on the air and broadcasts the news of Amos’ death.

 Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews) prepping for his television show.

No sooner has his father’s body been removed than Walter, an immature playboy with no understanding of the media takes control of the Kyne empire. Walter only knows Kritzer and is only meeting the other three for the first time. When he’s alone with Ed, Walter reveals that he has no desire to run the business and plans to force Griffith, Kritzer and Loving to compete for the position of executive editor, the man who will make all the decisions while he takes all of the credit.

Amos' son, Walter (Vincent Price) takes over after his father's death.

Each man realizes that scooping the story of The Lipstick Killer will make him a frontrunner for the executive position, and so turns to his office allies to help him in secret. Loving calls in his girlfriend, fashion columnist Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), who advises him to collaborate with reporter Gerald Meade (Ralph Peters).

Meanwhile, John approaches Ed, his former reporter, in the Blue Dell, the bar downstairs from the office. Ed refuses to take sides, but at home later, his girlfriend, Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) who is Loving’s secretary, urges him to help John, and he agrees after she promises to marry him.

At the same time, Walter invites his old friend, Kritzer, to dinner, unaware that he is secretly having an affair with Walter’s wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming). Kritzer hopes she will convince Walter to promote him to the new position.

Walter’s wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming) is having an affair with Kritzer.

Later that night, John learns that an arrest has been made and asks Ed to get the details from his friend, police lieutenant Bert Kaufman (Howard Duff). Bert allows Ed to see some of the interrogation of Pilski, whose prints were found in Judith’s room, but Ed quickly surmises that Pilksi is innocent.

At first, police think building janitor George Pilski (Vladimir Sokoloff) killed Judith.

After another murder is reported, and a Strangler comic book left by the killer is discovered at the scene of the crime, Ed and Bert surmise that it must be the same murderer. Together, they devise a plan to use Nancy as bait. The plan is for Ed to insult the killer on television in order to incite him into acting rashly.

A copy of a Strangler comic book is found at a murder scene.

Meanwhile, Meade learns about Pilski’s arrest and tells Loving that the janitor is The Lipstick Killer. At the office, when Loving tells John and Walter that he is going to print the story, John points out that they may be committing libel since it’s unproven that Pilski is the killer. Walter is embarrassed by his lack of understanding of the term libel, and Loving is forced to kill the story.

Robert watches Ed, who calls him a "mama's boy."

Not long after, Ed addresses the killer directly on his broadcast, which Robert happens to be watching at home. Ed’s description of him as a “mama’s boy” hits home and infuriates Robert, who lashes out at his mother (Mae Marsh) for treating him like a girl during his childhood.

Robert takes out his frustration on his mother (Mae Marsh).

Ed, Bert, John, and Nancy meet at the bar, where Ed informs Nancy that they must use her as bait to trap the killer. After she learns that plainclothesman Michael O'Leary (Edward Hinton) will follow her everywhere, Nancy reluctantly agrees to the plan. To further draw out the killer and alert him to Nancy’s existence, Ed announces their engagement in the newspaper.

Loving senses that he is losing the competition and solicits Mildred to entice Ed to their side. When she resists he tells her that they’re all adults and that it won’t matter to him in the long run. That night, she joins Ed at the Blue Dell and, after encouraging him to drink excessively, invites him home.

At the same time, in the apartment that Dorothy keeps for trysts with Kritzer, she informs the photo editor that if she does convince Walter to promote him, Kritzer must, from then on, answer to her.
Robert is sent to Dorothy’s to deliver liquor, and when he spots her, is inflamed with lust. He does not have time to jimmy the door lock, as Kritzer finishes the transaction before he can. Upon leaving, he spies Nancy’s name outside her apartment, which happens to be across the hall.

Robert watches as Mildred (Ida Lupino) coaxes Ed out of the bar.

He rings the bell but, getting no answer, races to the Kyne building and spies Ed and Mildred in the Blue Dell. He is there when Mildred finally encourages Ed to leave with her.

Mildred hopes to take a drunken Ed home with her.

Despite Ed’s drunkenness, his loyalty to Nancy keeps him from making love to Mildred. That doesn’t stop Mildred from telling the whole office, including Nancy, about their supposed tryst the next morning. Naturally, Nancy breaks up with Ed.

After clinching a lucrative television contract, Loving celebrates his coup and assumes he has won the contest.

Still trying to get back with her, Ed tricks Nancy into meeting with him and Bert at the bar. But she’ll have no part of it and storms out. Robert sees his opportunity but backs off when he sees Michael is trailing her.

Meanwhile, Ed and Bert deduce that the killer will seek a new stimulus and thinking he might strike regardless of Michael’s presence, rush to Nancy’s apartment.

Robert can't get Nancy to open her door for him.

Their thinking was right. Michael, thinking Nancy will be safe in her apartment, has gone to get a bite to eat. Robert tries again to gain entrance but the door is locked. When he knocks, Nancy assumes it’s Ed and refuses to open the door for him. Robert’s attention is drawn once again to Dorothy, who comes out of her apartment to see what the commotion is. Robert follows her into her apartment and starts to chock Dorothy, though her screams alert Nancy, who takes Dorothy into her apartment when she escapes Robert’s grasp.

Robert tries to strangle Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming).

Robert flees just ahead of Ed and Bert pulling up outside. From her window, Nancy points to Robert and they pursue him. Robert runs to the subway and when he’s too late to get on the next train, starts running down the tunnel instead. Ed takes chase and manages to capture him without getting killed.

With Robert under arrest, Ed calls John with the scoop. John, in turn, sends Mildred over to Nancy’s apartment to learn the identity of the latest victim who is using the alias “Mrs. Charles Smith.” Mildred, of course, recognizes Dorothy when she arrives at the apartment building and Kritzer.

Mildred discovers that "Mrs. Charles Smith) is really Dorothy.

Rather than getting the story, the three of them work out a scheme to blackmail Walter, who will no doubt want to avoid the public humiliation of his wife’s affair.

Meanwhile, back at the office, John is celebrating his triumph when Kritzer arrives and demands to talk to Walter.

John thinks that getting the story will get him the promotion.

Later, Ed and John commiserate in the bar over Kritzer’s victory. Nancy, sitting a few seats away, and Walter, who has just joined them, are surprised to hear Ed announce he is quitting, as he can no longer work for a man who puts his own interests above those of the business. When Ed gets up to leave, Nancy follows.

Walter watches on as Ed tells John what he thinks of Walter.

Days later, on their honeymoon in a hotel room in Florida, Nancy reads Ed an article reporting that Walter has fired Kritzer, appointed John executive editor and named Mildred as his “personal assistant.” She continues to read that Walter has announced Ed’s return to the paper, as managing editor, something Ed has not agreed or appears to want to do.

Suspecting that it is Walter when the phone rings, Ed throws his hat over the receiver.

Your first reaction after watching the movie is that it doesn’t seem to have been your usual film noir. It shares many of the same characteristics as the subgenre demands: crime, nighttime and people placed in danger but you might be wondering who is the femme fatale? You know, the beautiful woman leading the protagonist astray, using her sexual wiles as a siren song sending him into the rocks. Of the three beautiful women in the story, Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming), Mildred (Ida Lupino) and Nancy (Susan Forrest), Dorothy would be the closest to the normal femme fatale. Nancy is too pure and Mildred doesn’t seem to have any real loyalties. Dorothy, on the other hand, is willing to help Kritzer get what he wants from her husband but only as long as Kritzer knows she’s the real one in charge. Ultimately, however, Walter grows a pair and fires Kritzer from the top job. No telling what becomes of Dorothy.

Directed by Fritz Lang, the master German Expressionist filmmaker behind such films as Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), who became the “Master of Darkness” with his work on the Hollywood film noirs Moontide (1942), Hangmen Also Die (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Cloak and Dagger (1946), Secret Beyond the Door (1948), House by the River (1950), Clash by Midnight (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953), The Big Heat (1953), Human Desire (1954), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). If I needed a director for a film noir, Lang would be on the shortlist, a very short list.

That said, I wouldn’t say While The City Sleeps is one of his best. Bosley Crowther, the New York Times’ movie critic at the time, would describe the movie as “more flamboyant than probable” and I would have to agree. The closest thing to the Kyne media empire would seem to have been Hearst’s with newspapers, and wire service, and it’s hard to imagine such an empire putting all its eggs in the basket of solving a terrible, though obscure, murder.

Crowther also closes his review stating that in the movie “the long arm of coincidence seems a lot stronger here than the arms of the law and journalism”, which is also true as well. Even though Dorothy’s apartment is only a place to meet her lover Kritzer since it is right across the hallway from another employee at the New York Sentinel, why did the affair take so long to come to light? Either sweet Nancy is truly aware of the affair and says nothing or else Dorothy and Kritzer are so secretive that Nancy is not the wiser. Neither seems plausible, though it is necessary for the film to work.

There is plenty of action, coincidental or not, and the film keeps up a pretty good pace throughout. While Robert’s motivation is somewhat similar to Norman Bates’ in Psycho (1960), sexual desire turns the delivery man into a murderer, his is not as clearly spelled out as Norman’s. It is clear there is something going on between Robert and his mother, but he is not crazy as Norman is portrayed. There is something psychological going on but the film never explores it.

The acting is pretty good but one would expect nothing less from this cast. Dana Andrews plays the world-weary Ed who really doesn’t have much at stake in solving the mystery. He is not one of the three men vying for the job that is at stake. He is only involved to help out a friend, John in his bid for the position. Andrews would team up with Director Lang again that same year in another newspaper-themed film noir, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

Thomas Mitchell is a good actor in almost any genre something he’s shown in the western, Stagecoach (1939), where he played the alcoholic Doc Josiah Boone; comedy-drama in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), not to mention the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) to name only a few of his previous roles. He is good here, too, as John the news editor with bigger ambitions.

Vincent Price has not yet been typecast as the king of B Horror films. He carries off the role of the publisher’s spoiled son Walter Kyne, who has no interest in carrying on his father’s legacy. He is also blind to his wife’s infidelity with his best friend. Price is good in these type of roles, see Laura (1944) wherein he plays a similar character, Shelby Carpenter, a ne’er do well like Walter.

Ida Lupino’s Mildred is portrayed as a modern woman, with a career as a writer, unafraid to use sex to get what she wants. Though she fails to get Ed in bed, she does get the job done, at least temporarily wrecking Ed and Nancy’s relationship. Lupino was always a good actress before getting behind the camera as a producer and director beginning in the late 1940’s. No stranger to film noir, Lupino starred in such films as Road House (1948), Woman in Hiding (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1952), and Beware, My Lovely (1952) before directing one, The Hitch-Hiker (1953).

Rhonda Fleming gets credit, at least in my estimation, as the femme fatale, using sex to get what she wants from Walter but also from his best friend, Kritzer, the latter who would be under her control if he gets the job with her help. While we eventually know that Kritzer loses out, one has to imagine Dorothy gets through alright.

As for the rest of the cast, George Sanders is always a delight to watch, even, as in this film, the role doesn’t necessarily play to his strengths. It is interesting that the killer, John Drew Barrymore, comes from the great acting family, barely has any lines but is still a two-dimensional character. Sally Forrest’s character, Nancy, is a bit one-dimensional but there really isn’t more required from her. And Howard Duff is a versatile actor who does well with his role as Lt. Burt Kaufman.

Howard Duff plays Lt. Burt Kaufman in While the City Sleeps.

While the City Sleeps is a good, though, not great. You might not even realize you’ve watched a film noir, though it technically is. Fritz Lang has done better work but it’s hard to really complain. The film is entertaining and keeps a good pace throughout. You could do a lot worse.

For other noirs check out our Film Noir Review Hub. 

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