Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Noir Watch: While the City Sleeps (1956)

Watched:  07/30/2019
Format:  Noir Alley on TCM on DVR
Viewing:  Second
Decade:  1950's

I'm always going to support a movie that features Ida Lupino slinging back drinks, dropping snappy dialog and not exactly being coy about her interests.  She's, however, just one of many name talents in While the City Sleeps (1956), an ensemble drama about the women and men at work in a major metropolitan newspaper.  Directed by Fritz Lang, this one features:  Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, John Drew Barrymore, Sally Forrest and more, all bringing their A-game and making for a fun, unsentimental look at how the sausage is made in the big news game.

A media mogul, Kyne Sr., knows he's going to die, but he's working from a bed in his office, right up til the last minute.  He laments that he never trained his wastrel son to take over the business, but with no real plan in site, it looks like his son (Vincent Price, who specialized in clueless fops til he pivoted to horror) will take over.  Meanwhile a young, lovely librarian is killed in her own apartment, the killer scrawling "ask mother" across the wall in lipstick.  Kyne Jr. (Price) is clever enough to know who the top dogs are at his father's company, and wanting someone to run the place, challenges the photo editor, the wire-services director and the editor of the Daily Sentinel (read: NYT), to prove their the right candidate.

Meanwhile, star reporter and growing TV personality Ed Mobley, played to perfection by Dana Andrews - maybe method-acting his way a bit too much in the drunk scenes - is pulled into the fracas as he's put on to track down The Lipstick Killer.  Meanwhile, he recruits his newly minted fiance (Forrest) to play bait, and "woman's angle" reporter Ida Lupino plays all sides, the smartest one in the room (who also wanted to land Mobley for herself).

For those of us hep to the history of comics, this is a stunning reminder of the power of the Estes Kefauver-driven Senate hearings on the impact of comics on juveniles, driven by Dr. Frederick Wertham's screed, Seduction of the Innocent.  The motivation of the killer in the movie?  Bad "mother love" and an addiction to horror comics had driven him to murder.  Like, people straight up just went with this in 1956, the same as they went with "heavy metal is killing kids" in the 1980's and "video games are killing kids" the past two decades.

My memory of the film the first time around was that they spent a lot of time in a bar, and that was not incorrect.  There's a watering hole conveniently adjoined to the Sentinel's offices.  What's also apparent is that Lupino and Andrews went ahead and got into character for their scenes.

Lupino, Lang and Andrews

The movie is pretty remarkable for any number of reasons - from the cast to one of Lang's final hurrahs as a major director.  It's also noirish in its lack of sentimentality about the Fourth Estate and as close as we've got to a protagonist in Andrews' Mobley character, a guy with flaws he can easily cave to (that perky secretary he just got engaged to is going to spend a lot of time ignoring lipstick stains on his collars).  It also features, as many noir films do, a sexually aggressive woman, and it doesn't damn her for being so.  In fact, she escapes a minor scandal unscathed while everyone raises an eyebrow at the recently engaged Mobley.

I think there are something like 3 interlocking romantic/ sexual triangles in the film, possibly a fourth if you take into account George Sanders making a pass at Andrews' fiancee (just before she gets engaged).  So it's all a lot to keep up with, but it all works and feels breezy for a movie about a guy out there strangling young women.  A topic it's not clear anyone actually cares about except that it makes good copy and can drum up fear in readers.

Muller himself admits the film isn't noir - he just likes it and has a personal connection to it as the author of the novel upon which it was based was a family friend.  Plus, he's a fan of any film tied to the newspaper biz.  It may have some noir elements, but the "bitter little world" aspect to noir is played up as a "ha ha, we're all going to hell" sort of tone that, believe me, I can get behind.  For pure noir in the news-biz, Sweet Smell of Success is where it's at, cats.

I actually highly recommend this movie - this is a great chance to see a lot of these actors doing what they did so well (and I didn't even get into Rhonda Fleming and her whole storyline.).  It's not got a lot of what you think of vis-a-vis early Lang and his visual achievements, but it makes up for it in character beats, a tight script and tremendous dialog. 

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