A sleazy and steamy film noir about the newspaper business, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps joins Beyond a Reasonable Doubt at the end of the director’s Hollywood career. Both movies were released in 1956 and both movies feature a minuscule budget and Dana Andrews in the starring role. And both movies certainly feature that trademark Lang cynicism, although While the City Sleeps is more effective.
While many films noir feature sonorous cityscapes as the playgrounds of debauchery, Lang’s flick sinks its teeth into the newsroom. The glassy environs of a New York rag become a den of iniquity, with sex and drunkenness and murder simmering beneath the headlines. The men and women talk in harsh innuendos and spend their off-hours drinking and bedding each other down.
Andrews stars as Edward Mobley, a reporter and television personality. When his media magnate boss Amos Kyne (Robert Warick) dies, his son Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) takes over and looks to shake things up. A serial killer (John Drew Barrymore) is on the loose in the city and Kyne decides that he’s going to promote the division head who breaks the scoop.
This pits editor Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) in a dogfight with wire service chief Mark Loving (George Sanders) and photographer Harry Kritzer (James Craig) for the post. There are more interpersonal entanglements than one can imagine, with each man jockeying for position. Mobley tries to aid his pal Griffith, plus he gets engaged to Loving’s secretary Nancy (Sally Forrest).
The women of While the City Sleeps want in. Kritzer is having an affair with Walter’s sexy wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming), while writer Mildred (Ida Lupino) is sent off on various physical errands by Loving. Eventually, she stops being a conduit for his personal ambition and starts to chase her own desires.
The Casey Robinson screenplay is based on Charles Einstein’s novel The Bloody Spur and features a raft of sexual innuendos and sassy double-entendres. Things get hot when the characters are willing to do anything to get ahead, while Edward’s alcoholism becomes a real problem when the tempting Mildred is put on the seductive warpath. Everyone’s playing with fire.
If there is a virginal figure in the bunch, it’s poor Nancy. And leave it to the cads to turn her into bait for the killer, who seethes and leers from the shadows. Motherhood is tossed into the mix, only the wholesomeness is gone and the bond between mother and son is warped like everything else in this cruel town.
Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo makes the interiors of While the City Sleeps work as a sort of glass-walled jail. Life in the newsroom is like life in a fishbowl, so characters scurry to bedrooms and apartments to carry on their extracurricular activities. In these locales, Laszlo works a tease. One particularly persuasive shot ogles at Fleming’s profile while Price tries to get his ball in the hole.
Andrews’ Mobley initially represents himself as being above the fray. When he speaks with the dying elder Kyne, he talks about a lack of ambition and a satisfaction for where he’s at in life. But then he starts sniffing the air and the booze takes hold. While he was the straight man in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Andrews is waist-deep in corruption here. And he’s a stone-cold jerk, too.
Lang’s pessimism is on full display in While the City Sleeps and the picture is more ironed-out and interesting as a result. He draws on a spectacular cast – seriously, look at those names – and jerks the darkness out of every corner. There’s not a soul he seems to trust, apart from Nancy, and his loathing of the newsroom and its schemes holds in fast contrast against the killer.
This is an unforgiving, smouldering vision of Lang at his most distrustful. It’s a discouraging trip through the people who would do anything for a headline and a tour of a life with no bottom. It’s hell on earth in black and white and the wicked citizens never sleep.