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While the City Sleeps

While the City Sleeps(1956)

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teaser While the City Sleeps (1956)

Conventional wisdom has it that the greatest stylistic influence on film noir was German Expressionism, with all its dark fatalism, subjective camera angles and movement, and sharp chiaroscuro lighting. So when an early Expressionist master takes on a noir subject, the result is bound to be pretty much definitive. Fritz Lang's career produced many of the best examples of the genre, including The Woman in the Window (1945), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). In While the City Sleeps (1956), Lang focuses on the attempts of several newspaper people to rise to prominence by breaking the real story behind a series of brutal murders of women. One of the hallmarks of many noir films is the shadowy moral universe they portray, in which the lines between "good guy" and "bad guy" are blurred. Lang goes full out with that approach in While the City Sleeps, painting the ambitious journalists seeking to crack the case as seedy, manipulative, and corrupt.

Although some attempts are made at a kind of pop-Freudian analysis of the crimes, Lang's interest here is less in exploring the mind of the murderer as he did in M (1931), perhaps the first film about a serial killer. He does, however, take a similar narrative approach as in the earlier movie by revealing the killer at the very top of the story. Some critics at the time carped that this was evidence of a poorly constructed thriller, but Lang isn't going for conventional suspense mechanics. The killer's actions (and the concurrent death of a newspaper tycoon) set off a chain reaction that leads the other characters down paths that reveal their own worst sides, and that's the true focus of the movie. There is even something of a parallel between the killer's choice of victims and the way the ambitious men in the story all use women to achieve their ends. Even the one character who seems to be the most upright, the reporter played by Dana Andrews, uses his fiancas bait for the killer.

While the City Sleeps was Lang's last successful U.S. release, following a 20-year career in Hollywood. Before that he was one of the most prominent directors in Germany - Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) - until the rise of Nazism forced him out of his native country. He made only one American film after this, a murder mystery entitled Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956, which also starred Dana Andrews as a writer). He then made four films in Europe before retiring from directing in 1960. Lang was always conflicted about working in Hollywood. Compared to the repression of Nazism, it was certainly the lesser of two evils. But he constantly saw his work compromised by the studio system, even those films which were independently produced, such as You Only Live Once (1937).

"I was disgusted," he later said. "I looked back over the past - how many pictures had been mutilated - and since I had no intention of dying of a heart attack, I said, "I think- I'll step out of this rat race."

While the City Sleeps is notable for the number of stars in it, even if most of them were past their prime - Andrews, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, George Sanders, Rhonda Fleming, Thomas Mitchell, and Howard Duff. Here again, Lang was having to deal with the typical studio constraints, but he made it work for him. Every part was a good one but, with the possible exception of Andrews, did not require a huge amount of screen time. With careful scripting in collaboration with screenwriter Casey Robinson and good planning, Lang was able to keep each actor's production time down to four or five days, making it financially possible to have so many names in the cast. But although it was successful in this case, the casting proved Lang's anti-Hollywood point even further.

"A distributor, you see, likes to have a kind of security that the money will come back, and he believes a star is security," he explained. "I can tell you fifty pictures with big stars that were big flops, but who can argue with motion picture people? They never learn."

Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Bert Friedlob
Screenplay: Casey Robinson, from the novel The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Editing: Gene Fowler, Jr.
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Cast: Dana Andrews (Edward Mobley), Rhonda Fleming (Dorothy Kyne), George Sanders (Mark Loving), Howard Duff (Burt Kaufmann), Ida Lupino (Mildred Donner), Thomas Mitchell (Jon Day Griffith), Vincent Price (Walter Kyne), Sally Forrest (Nancy Liggett), John Drew Barrymore (Robert Manners).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.

by Rob Nixon

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