REVIEW: While the City Sleeps [1956]

“Ask Mother”

It may be difficult to accurately critique Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps since the conversation afterwards amongst friends pretty much tore apart any credibility the film had. What, upon completion, felt to me as a pretty solid film noir despite its schizophrenic story threads and tone soon saw its worth decreased with every nitpicked plothole we stumbled upon. From surreal moments of absurdity, to insanely coincidental occurrences, to bafflingly glossed-over events, to poorly written characters, the movie is more a comedy of errors than a taut suspense thriller. The audience is hard-pressed to figure out whether the true main plot is a serial killer on the loose being hunted by a newsroom of reporters or a cynical look at the media being ushered into a new era of cutthroat reporting—where scandals are of more importance than fact-checking—from one of credibility and service to the public. Neither becomes a clear winner at any point in the proceedings, but they do add on a third competitor with the love of our lead to his girlfriend being fully tested. Three plotlines competing simultaneously for our attention, much like the trio of newsmen fighting for the “prize” of a made-up position created by the media empire’s, recently deceased, president’s son.

Before Amos Kyne’s dying last breath, he declared a murder as top news, coining the killer as the “Lipstick Murderer”, and let it be known that he never did find a true successor. His son, Walter, was “killed with kindness” and spoiled into a lifestyle that didn’t cultivate a sense of honor and his top reporter, Ed Mobley, turned his back on the power of running the place in lieu of a leading anchor role in the television branch. But Amos explains that the job at the top isn’t about power, it is about the responsibility of giving the world information, to educating the public. Well, as no one was ready to take his place, naïve Walter takes the job and decides to use his power in order to create a game that will wipe the smiles off his subordinates’ faces. Threatening his top three men that their jobs were safe for the moment, he manufactures a position, that would theoretically be doing his work as he lounges at home, putting golf balls into glass tumblers while his wife oddly spins with arms outstretched in their small sand box, to set them against each other, proving that the media was more salacious than factual. Libel suits are almost reached, false leads almost printed, and shoddy reporting rewarded in attempts to defeat the others, all spear-headed by the building’s top man, someone who pits them against each other and then weeks later wonders why there is so little cooperation amongst departments.

The contest lies in finding and printing, before any other news source, the true identity of the “Lipstick Murderer”. Just the fact that the killer has a nickname so arbitrary shows how ill conceived and innocuous he is. Lipstick is used once, scrawling a cryptic message on the wall of a victim—the only victim at the time, by the way—hardly a pile-up of bodies. We not only see the man’s face in the opening scene, but we watch as his flimsy motivations and covering-his-tracks mentality are figured out by Mobley and his police detective friend, killing all suspense. The police don’t even seem to be the ones on the case; it’s as though the newsmen are the real clue finders, even hatching their own stings. So, the film becomes a lesson in patience as we wait to see who finds the killer that we already know, therefore solidifying their acquisition of a promotion. To convolute it even more, however, the man at the forefront of finding the monster—a comic book reading, mama’s boy—isn’t even in the running for the job. Mobley is instead proxy for managing editor John Griffith, a cutthroat operator himself, but also the only one honest enough to tell Ed that any help he gives probably won’t win him anything. He asked for a friend while the others looked to con and gain a “partner”. Maybe there is some credibility left after all, except Mr. Honorable Mobley is also a drunkard that feels no shame in kissing another woman while his fiancé discovers his flowers outside her door. Such a fickle world we live in.

There is just so much going on that nothing can ever become a true focal point. Every plot thread needs to be seen through to its end, oftentimes overlapping easily to tie up loose ends. Two characters just happen to live across the hall from one another? The pharmacy boy that delivers to the victims is never looked into for questioning? Everyone is sleeping with everyone else behind his/her back? The timing to catch people at the exact moments they need to in order to capture them is always perfect? Convenience is key and the lazy writing doesn’t end just there. Not only have so many people been written in that all competition for superiority gets smothered, but some of them are just poorly written. Sally Forrest’s Nancy Liggett, the love of Dana Andrews’ Mobley, is possibly the dumbest woman ever written. She plays it smart, all coy and proper when flirting with his advances, but in fact, she is the illiterate bimbo she jokes s his type anyways. When set up to be the bait that gets the killer out in the open, her complete non-realization is too comical to watch to ever take her seriously again.

I did like Andrews, though, especially playing drunk opposite Ida Lupino. George Sanders is brilliant as the haughty sophisticate with the best odds at securing the promotion and Thomas Mitchell, (a smarter and more sly version of his It’s a Wonderful Life character), is great as the ruthless editor that still holds onto a shred of heart when all others seem to have lost theirs fully. Even Vincent Price is entertaining as Walter Kyne, a playboy in over his head as he attempts to run a business he never wanted. He is actually funny and interesting as a goof when all previous experience with the actor was in horror/thrillers utilizing that distinct voice to send chills rather than create laughs at his ineptitude. Bad casting? Maybe. But then I think that most of these characters are just rushed and written too hastily to have a true three-dimensionality to them. You can’t fault the direction, though, with many moments harkening back to Lang’s M days. The use of cuts is sharp progressing scenes along. Watching Lupino and Andrews at the bar, oftentimes cutting between one to the other rather than showing both in frame shows this nicely, and then you have the subway chase, the only scene with even a shred of suspense.

I think my one friend hit the nail on the head when he said that the script needed one more, good look over before going before the cameras. It needed one more trim to relieve it of its excess and find a more central significance. So much occurs that is never shown again; interesting avenues are explored only to be tossed aside without further question; and there appear to be more distractions than actual necessary story points. While the City Sleeps is an entertaining film, it just isn’t for the reasons it bills itself to be.

While the City Sleeps 5/10 | ★ ★


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