While the City Sleeps

While the City Sleeps


Reviewed by: Adam Micklethwaite

Based on The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein, While The City Sleeps is an intelligent noir thriller from Fritz Lang, which is part crime drama and part critique of mass media and of the world of contemporary journalism. The sleeping city in question is 1950s New York and the business at hand is a complex plot involving the search for a serial murderer – the “Lipstick Killer”, who has murdered a string of young women across the city – and the power struggle following the death of media mogul Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick).

Kyne dies at the film’s outset, just as the serial killer story is breaking across his news empire. Upon his demise, Kyne Enterprises is inherited by his son and sole heir, Walter (played with relish by Vincent Price), who has a reputation for ineptitude and idiocy. In order to banish this reputation and establish his authority, Walter devises a scheme to bring his three leading editors (Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders and James Craig) into line, by establishing a new executive position for which they will compete. This is real heart of the film, as Lang’s critique of mass media centres on the depths to which the three editors will stoop in their bid to curry favour with Kyne and to land the big story at the centre of the lipstick killer case.

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The film’s hero is unassuming TV anchorman, Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and former favourite of Amos, who, though he has no interest in the power struggle for his own ends, agrees to help his friend John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) by trying to catch the killer. In the process, Mobley himself is put under the spotlight by Lang and found wanting. For all his laudable intentions and relatively noble characteristics that elevate him above the other men within the newsroom environment, he still has no qualms about using his girlfriend Nancy (Sally Forest) as bait for the killer, nor about succumbing briefly to the charms of another woman. In another film, he would perhaps be a more straightforward hero, but here he is just a man, with all the flaws this entails.

The female characters in the film are generally much more likeable than their male counterparts, if only for their refusal to conform to social norms. Subject to their own flaws they may be, but while the men still inhabit the chauvinistic society of yesteryear, the women are feisty and independent. Each of the three central female characters (Nancy, Walter Kyne’s wife Dorothy and newsroom provocateur Mildred Donner) play a very significant role in the outcome of the film – for both the killer and the newsroom exec.

The film’s biggest problem is the performances of the leads, which feel, for the most part, quite outdated and unconvincing. This is especially true of the central love story between Ed and Nancy, which, in time-honoured Hollywood tradition, is superfluous and detracts from the film’s two central intrigues: the search for the killer and the competition for Kyne’s new right hand man.

Certainly not as influential nor provocative as Lang’s very best work, While The City Sleeps is nevertheless a very good slice of Fifties noir, whose comments on the blind ambition of the media still resonate in the 21st century society.

Reviewed on: 28 Sep 2010
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While the City Sleeps packshot
A newspaper's staff compete to find a serial killer.
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Director: Fritz Lang

Writer: Casey Robinson, Charles Einstein

Starring: 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, Sandy White, Larry J. Blake

Year: 1956

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US


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