© 2013 William Ahearn
This film – along with “The Blue Gardenia” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” – form a supposed trilogy of newspaper business “exposés” by Fritz Lang. In The Films of Fritz Lang, author Tom Gunning’s last chapter is titled, “The 50s Exposés and Lang’s Last Testament” and lists the “exposé” films as “The Blue Gardenia,” “The Big Heat,” “While the City Sleeps,” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” as well as the last Dr Mabuse film made in 1960. In Fritz Lang, Lotte Eisner wrote, “[‘While The City Sleeps’] exposes the world of American newspapers and the sensational press, the treachery and disloyalty that can divide friendly colleagues caught in the rat-race for position, the advantages to be won by being the one to catch the murderer.”
Hollywood has been making fun and dramas about the newspaper business since at least the 1930s and the backstabbing machinations of the boardroom was “exposed” just two years earlier in Robert Wise’s “Executive Suite” where the dictatorial head of a corporation drops dead on Wall Street and his executive underlings – once the body is identified – start their machinations to replace him. The story is filled with the usual backstabbing, manipulations, and mistresses (the only roles for women other than wives, secretaries and daughter), and eventually comes down to a boardroom vote between a bean counter who wants to cater to the stockholders and the visionary who wants to make better products for a good price to expand the company.
“While the City Sleeps” is the story of a media magnate who drops dead in a hospital bed in his office. Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) knows his days are numbered as the head of a media empire, but before he can name a successor from among the heads of his various subsidiaries, he dies. The selection falls to his rich and disreputable son, Walter Kyne (Vincent Price), who – since he is incapable of making a selection based on merits he doesn’t understand – creates a contest among the three section chiefs – Mark Loving (George Sanders), Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) and Harry Kritzer (James Craig) to be the first to get the scoop on the identity of the so-called Lipstick Killer.
In his New York Times review of “While the City Sleeps,” Bosley Crowther sees the “sophistication” of the screenplay, and the film noir fedora squad sees the events as “corruption” that needs to be “exposed.” Peter Bogdanovich – who shares Andrew Sarris’ penchant for misrepresenting and over-blowing themes in Lang’s films – asked Lang about this film in Fritz Lang in America: “Weren’t most of the news people actually more objectionable than the murderer?”
“You are very romantic,” Lang told Bogdanovich. “They are human beings. Maybe it’s like Lorre in ‘M’ – he murders because he must – but these people (with the exception of Dana Andrews and Thomas Mitchell) do exactly the things you probably do yourself but detest: running after a job, greedy for money. How many people have you met in your life who are ethical? So what do you expect from these people?”
As with “The Blue Gardenia,” it’s a member of the media – that is supposedly exploiting the murders by the Lipstick Killer – that captures the killer and gets the girl. In Hollywood, the hero always rises out of the ranks of those supposedly “corrupt” individuals being “exposed.” The exact same thing happens in “Executive Suite” and “The Big Heat.”
Once again, expectations – mostly about Lang – and in this case about his characters and the “meaning” of his films rely on interpretations that misread Lang’s intentions. It’s also interesting that Lang should reference “M” in regards to this film. As with “Woman in the Window” and “House by the River,” among others, there’s a schizoid quality to the film. When Lang read the script, he told Bogdanovich, “I saw great possibilities in it and as well as some things which I didn’t believe” and “because there was also a kind of psychotic sex murderer in this story, I told [screen writer Casey Robinson] about my experiences on ‘M.’” What mars this breezier and better-paced version of “Executive Suite” is the cardboard version of the killer and the complete lack of suspense in his part of the story.
Eisner writes, “A French critic has complained that the murderer is ‘misunderstood Freud’; yet Lang’s ‘lipstick killer,’ based on real events, is much more convincingly motivated than, say, [Joseph] Losey’s neurotic murderer in his weak remake of ‘M.’ If the character from time to time seems conventional, despite his tics and manias, it must be blamed less on the director than on John Barrymore Jr, an incorrigibly mediocre actor whom Lang found he could teach nothing.”
For Eisner, this description is similar to blaming Lang’s shortcomings in his German films on Thea von Harbou. To say that this killer is based on “real” events is ridiculous. The true story of the killer that Eisner refers to – William Heirens – is fraught with the kind of corruption never shown in “film noirs” due to the Hays Code, among other reasons. (Go here and here for the despicable history.) The Lipstick Killer isn’t based on a “real” killer, he’s a cartoon compared to Hans Beckert. John Barrymore Jr may not be much of an actor, but he didn’t write the nonsense about the killer being a “momma’s boy” who “reads the so-called comic books” and he certainly didn’t pick that idiotic costume.
‘“While The City Sleeps,’ derived from Charles Einstein’s novel The Bloody Spur and newspaper accounts of a Chicago murder case, is generally regarded as Lang’s last significant work,” Frederick Ott wrote in 1979 when The Films of Fritz Lang was published. Since that time the film has lost whatever luster it once had and seems to survive solely on the cast.
Some interesting things to note: The nurse to Amos Kyne is played by Peter Lorre’s ex-wife, Celia Lovsky, who also appears as the blind flower seller in “The Blue Gardenia,” and as the mother of Mike Lagana (she posed for the portrait) in “The Big Heat.” The scene with Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews at the bar with the slide viewer was – according to Lang – the funniest bit he ever created and fought to keep it in the film. The strangest moment is an utterly pointless camera move. It occurs near the end of the film where Dana Andrews and Thomas Mitchell are at the bar. Sally Forest comes in and refuses to sit with them and goes to a seat farther away. Vincent Price enters and there is a conversation and the camera pulls back so that Forest is included in the scene and yet her back is to the audience and she shows no reaction and then we’re edited back to the three-person shot at the bar. Lang occasionally gets jiggy with inserts – the monocle in “Cloak and Dagger” and the number of inserts on a piece of jewelry in “Rancho Notorious” – but this is a calculated camera move that goes nowhere and I can’t think of another example in any other Fritz Lang film.