Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
Get the Poster
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Sally Forrest, John Drew Barrymore, James Craig, Ida Lupino, Robert Warwick, Mae Marsh, Ralph Peters, Sandra White, Larry J. Blake
Written by: Casey Robinson, based on a novel by Charles Einstein
Directed by: Fritz Lang
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 100
Date: 05/30/1956

While the City Sleeps (1956)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Scoop to Nuts

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps is one of his final American films, made more or less at the same time as the final one, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. It was long unavailable on video until Warner Archive released it on DVD in 2011, and I finally caught up with it. It uses a wider screen than Lang was used to, and it has a brighter, flatter look than some of his moodier films noir, but I think it may be my favorite Lang.

Like his great M (1931), the story centers around a serial killer, but unlike that movie, While the City Sleeps isn't really about a serial killer. It's about the news team at the New York Sentinel, a batch of colorful, thoroughly rotten characters whose behavior is arguably even more abominable than the killer's.

When the paper's beloved old patriarch dies, his nasty, spoiled son Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) has a plan. Whoever catches the murderer, which the paper has called the "Lipstick Killer," gets the newly formed job of executive director. Editor Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), wire editor Mark Loving (George Sanders) and photo editor Harry Kritzer (James Craig) are all competing for the job.

Newspaperman Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) is offered as the movie's hero. He's a Pulitzer Prize winner and has a television broadcast in place of what used to be his hard-nosed crime reporting. Griffith latches onto him as an ally in the competition, but get this: Mobley decides to use his own fiancee, Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest), as bait for the killer. Not to mention that he's a drunk and ends up making out with a society columnist in the back of a taxi just a day or two after proposing. He even tries to defend himself, "I didn't do anything!" because he was drunk and he was seduced.

Most of these seasoned men fall back on women to do their dirty work for them. Loving has the society columnist, Mildred Donner (a magnificent Ida Lupino), as a mistress, and Kritzer is secretly sleeping with Kyne's wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming). Indeed, Kritzer doesn't even feel the need to enter into the competition; he thinks that Dorothy's influence will be enough. All of these characters engage in dirty newspapering tricks to out-scoop one another (when they should be working together to out-scoop other papers).

Compared to these guys, the killer (John Drew Barrymore) is just a kid. His homicidal tendencies are inspired by comic books -- he reads one called "The Strangler" -- and by some "mommy" issues he has on account of being adopted. He works as a deliveryman for a drug store and enters apartments by pushing in the button lock on the door. (I wonder who came up with that bright idea for a lock?)

Doors and windows and telephones wire the entire thing together. The newsroom is made up of see-through partitions where characters can easily see duplicitous behavior but can't hear; otherwise, when using the phone, they can hear, but can't see. (The movie even ends with a shot of a phone.) Mobley's girl works as Loving's secretary and he often calls her while watching her through the window, much to her exasperation. Loving, meanwhile, lets Mobley see him flirting with her. In one scene, the killer even ducks into a doorway and hides -- behind a window!

There's not much sleeping going on -- Griffith is shown asleep, but he bounds out of bed when the phone rings -- and the movie seems to be constantly taking place after the end of sleepless (or drunken) nights. It's always bright, and evenly lit; perhaps Lang used this budgetary constraint as an advantage, making sure that all the story's sordid details were given equal weight.

In truth, though Lang has made many truly dark films, this may be his darkest and most cynical, but it's also his most lively; the wickedness can bring a smile to your face. This may be in part thanks to the astoundingly good cast, most of whom were either "B" actors on their way up or "A" actors on their way down. They play wonderfully well together. Overall, this is one of those movies that's just compulsively watchable, almost unbelievable, and totally amazing.

Movies Unlimtied