While the City Sleeps

March 10, 2010 at 2:41 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , )


“Get me the killer.”

 While the City Sleeps is a 1956 film noir that features a Who’s Who of noir names and faces. It is directed by one of the greatest film directors of all-time, Fritz Lang. The cast is filled with noir regulars Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Howard Duff, Rhonda Fleming, and Robert Warwick. You would be hard pressed to find another film noir with such a star studded cast.

 This film comes near the end of the heyday of noir films and also at the end of the heyday for several of its stars. The booze was already catching up to Dana Andrews at this point, and it was beginning to show. Thomas Mitchell was to appear in only a few more films after While the City Sleeps. Ida Lupino was about to turn her attention to television and directing. Finally, Fritz Lang made only two more American films after While the City Sleeps.

 Despite the names attached to the film, it is relatively unknown and hard to find (Thank You TCM). It is based in a New York City media empire that spans the newswire, newspaper, and television. These three entities are competing to be the first to break the story of the capture of the “Lipstick Killer” who is murdering young women in the city.

 Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) has just inherited the media empire from his deceased father (Robert Warwick) and is holding a competition for his second in command. Griffith, Mark Loving (George Sanders), and Harry Kritzer (James Craig) are the three in contention. The person who catches the “Lipstick Killer” gets the job. Let the backstabbing begin.

 Ed Mobley (Andrews) is a television anchorman and former crime beat journalist who is reluctantly brought into the power struggle by John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) the newspaper editor. All the while, Mobley is attempting to marry Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) and fight of the advances of Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino).

 Elements of Noir

 There are some half-hearted noir elements in this film, though nothing really jumps out. Both Lupino’s and Rhonda Fleming’s characters are watered-down femme fatales. They are selfish and backstabbing, but neither is murderous like a Phyllis Dietrichson. The city provides the backdrop, but most of the action is in the bar or the newsroom.

 The characters are flawed, but not dark and disturbed. The screenplay seems to want to force their bad nature on us with dialogue like, “I wonder what the nice people are doing tonight.” The problem is that the actions of the characters show them to be petty rather than having any psychological demons to deal with. 

 Visually, there are several shots and scenes that stand out as noir, such as the chase at the end and a few of the darker shots of the city, but this is not a visually notable film. However, like many noir films, While the City Sleeps does push the envelope, especially when it comes to sex. It is one of the raciest films of the era and is a bit shocking when you realize that it was made in 1956.

 Lines like “Get your things off. It’s your wedding day, you wanna look nice,” and “You can see right through this thing,” are only a small sampling of the sexually explicit dialogue that runs through the film.


 You would think that with the immense talent involved in this film it would stand as an elite film noir. Sadly, this is not the case. It is not a terrible movie, but certainly disappointing. Dana Andrews’s performance is inconsistent, though at times he shows the presence that made him one of the greatest noir stars of all-time.

 Ida Lupino, playing the gossip columnist Mildred Donner, gives the best performance of the group. This is one of her most flamboyant and racy characters she was ever able to play and she was up to the challenge. She seems to carry both Andrews and George Sanders on her shoulders in their scenes together. You will never see Sanders so bland in any film.

 The most disappointing performance is that of Fritz Lang. The opening shows some interesting visual style and the chase through the subway at the end shows a flash of Lang’s greatness, but the rest of the film is visually boring. In addition, some of the greatest actors of the era give flat performances and the film is simply not menacing enough.

 The film has a two-headed monster of a plot that actually works pretty well. The biggest flaw is the eventual ploy used to catch the killer, which is a bit ludicrous, though the plot is not the problem. The problem is that many of these actors were passed their prime and the director was certainly mailing in the end of his career.

 The film is watchable and does hold your attention, but this is certainly a film that is less than the sum of its parts.


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