Question: What do you get when you combine a tale of a serial murderer amidst the daily hubbub of a competitive news environment, director Fritz Lang, and some of Hollywood’s noir finest, including Dana Andrews, George Sanders, Vincent Price, Ida Lupino, Rhonda Fleming, Howard Duff, and Thomas Mitchell?
Answer: In this humble reviewer’s opinion, a MESS.
I watched While the City Sleeps because I was tempted by the fabulous cast and the noir label. What I found was far from noir and far from good: part drama, part murder mystery, part critique of American cut-throat business techniques. The film dallies with a few noir tropes, but it lacks the tenseness or depth one expects from director Fritz Lang at his best.
My first problem with the flick is its lack of a coherent purpose. We begin with a thriller, shift to a workplace drama, end with a love story. This is illustrated well by the disparate film posters:
I’d argue the film is foremost a social commentary, but it’s a relatively trite one. The plot is mostly about character interaction (true of much of Lang’s work): Smarmy Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) inherits his father’s million-dollar media conglomerate. Inexperienced and arrogant (which young Price does so well), he decides to make a competition out of who will get a new executive management position based on who gets the exclusive scoop on a recent murder case.
The murder turns out to be multiple murders, and the contest gets cut-throat between slimy Mark Loving (George Sanders) and honest, hardworking Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell). Scheming third player Harry Kritzer (James Craig) is also in the running by opting out of the competition and just being Walter’s best pal — a man who is having an affair with Walter’s wife (Rhonda Fleming). Into this mix, add central character ace reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), who’s in love with Loving’s perky secretary Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest). Then toss in Loving’s playmate, women’s columnist Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) and skilled cop and friend of Mobley’s Lt. Burt Kaufman (Howard Duff). Oh, and don’t forget our serial killer, a leather-jacketed psycho played by John Barrymore, Jr.
With so many stars (and so many egos) in the mix, it’s no wonder the film has a tough time deciding exactly what it’s about. Most clear is that the murder plot is of least importance, given that the murderer’s motivation is terribly written dreck about a comic-book reading kid who grows up to hate his doting adoptive mother and absent father, and taking out his anger by strangling pretty young ladies. The one scene with his mother (Mae Marsh) is so cheesy and heavy-handed that I cringed watching it.
Also, sadly, neither Lupino nor Sanders get much to do. Sanders absolutely phones it in, though even so he’s still good and snide. Lupino gives her sassy role all she’s got, but there’s just not much to it.
While it coulda/shoulda been better, let me back up to say that the film isn’t simply, wholly awful. It’s messy, overwrought and underfocused. But it has some good acting and some well-handled moments. My favorite scenes are those between Dana Andrews and Howard Duff. There’s a real rapport between the two as the characters work on the story of the killer together.
Of course, YMMV (your mileage may vary), and I wouldn’t warn anyone away from watching While the City Sleeps. It passed the time, and I got to see some faces I truly like seeing on the screen. If you decide you’d like to give it a gander, it’s up on Vimeo so you don’t even have to pay: https://vimeo.com/81074642.