The Lipstick Killer and the power of media – Fritz Lang wonders which one is more dangerous in this noir classic.
A film noir, a soapy ensemble piece and a fine newspaper picture, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps manages to feel stronger as it seemingly divides its attention among these varied interests. In his penultimate American film, released by RKO in 1956, Lang broadened the focus in ways he had rarely done since arriving in Hollywood. Questions are raised about the influence of media, the many roles of sex, and strength (or lack thereof) of character, among others. The result is a picture that still works enormously well, both because it utilizes the director’s typically deft pacing and as a consequence of his willingness to explore adult, often cynical themes. Lang balances his characters, intentions and commitment to scratching around the unhealthy area where human vice merges with influence and manipulation. While the City Sleeps is a film that touches on Lang’s usual interests of guilt, and the psychology surrounding it, and the impact of individuals on society as a whole (and vice versa), but, more than anything else, it’s one about power.
As the movie begins, the power rests with dying media magnate Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick). He runs several major newspapers, a prominent wire service and a television station. He has little faith in his son Walter (Vincent Price, slimy as ever) and instead prefers his best newsman Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), who has never shown any interest in taking over for Kyne. Walter indeed ascends to the company’s leadership after his father’s death and, recognizing he’s in over his head, creates a position that will directly oversee all news operations. He chooses three candidates for the job: wire service chief Mark Loving (George Sanders), newspaper editor John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), and head photograph man Harry Kritzer (James Craig). The intertwining relationships among these principals, and the way they’re perceived by others as well as the viewer, become fairly complex, though actually a little underplayed by Lang. The characters of Mobley and columnist Mildred Donner (a perfect Ida Lupino, who was somehow overlooked by the Academy for this and every other role she ever played) are the ones who crisscross around the candidates with the most interest.
The setup, for the film and the unsubtle competition among Loving, Griffith and Kritzer, centers around a serial murderer dubbed early on as the “Lipstick Killer.” It’s assumed that whichever man gets the scoop will also receive the promotion, and all three are shown as desperately wanting it. Lang boldly begins the movie by showing the culprit (a too exaggerated John Drew Barrymore, son of John and father of Drew) as he nervously puts his plan in motion, before cutting away prior to the actual act. This seems to place the suspense with the goings-on at Kyne rather than the murder investigation. Any clues leading to the identity and capture of the killer attain importance for their place in the scheme of the promotion. Covering all of its bases, the film also introduces a police lieutenant, played by Howard Duff, who is a friend of Mobley’s and a means of establishing some semblance of procedural legitimacy. It’s here, too, that Lang conjures up a bit of tension in the hunt for the Lipstick Killer.
As shot by Ernest Laszlo, the climactic chase involving the hunted murderer and Mobley aesthetically confirms the picture’s status as a noir. Its qualifications from a narrative standpoint lie with the many levels of intrigue and deceit that float to the top of most any interaction involving the main characters. When melodrama threatens to be overpowering, Lang consistently dials things down to reveal the often sordid underbelly of what’s really going on among these people. (“I wonder what the nice people are doing tonight,” Mobley wryly wonders while in the back of a taxi with a woman who isn’t his fiancée.) It’s emphasized that Mobley has no ambitions of power, a claim that even Lang doesn’t seem to quite buy considering how he treats the character in scenes like the drunken coupling with Mildred and most every time he joins up with the lieutenant. The other principals, though, bleed and sweat for more power, using whatever strengths they perceive as having to position themselves into a better place. Mildred values her sex appeal, Loving relishes his connections, Griffith uses his reporter’s work ethic, and Harry has the boss’ wife (Rhonda Fleming) as his ace in the hole.
The larger arc of power extends to the role of the media in Lang’s film. Though it’s not an explicit point made by the picture, the pervasiveness of the Kyne empire is somewhat disconcerting and certainly reminiscent of modern news corporations. Controlling the news, which begins here with the dying Amos Kyne’s desire to see the lipstick killer story given prominent coverage, can give way to being a dangerous exercise of power, particularly when there are multiple platforms like a wire service and television station involved. Few films are as subtle yet skillful in depicting how the media can build a story up and then benefit from the invented relevance of it as While the City Sleeps. Moreover, such manipulation is presented as rather ordinary and without any ethical considerations. The one time something is quickly debated and removed, it’s out of concern for libel, a largely economic decision. Media power even reaches the Lipstick Killer, whose actions are guided by Mobley’s on-air comments and the page one announcement of his engagement to Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest). The message throughout the film seems to be that the media, in its various incarnations, can affect societal actions, and that it’s main concern is looking out for number one.
Lang’s film has a tacked-on happy ending that is almost impossible to actually take comfort in aside from an incidental comeuppance or two. The larger picture that Lang has painted here, just as in M and his Mabuse films, is one filled with unsolved problems and the near impossibility of the individual to break free from everyday conditions. It’s not that Lang seems to be suggesting total hopelessness or defeat. His point instead can be viewed as a warning of the potential for bleakness. If you ignore the larger ills of society then some sort of happiness might be possible. But it’s likely to be temporary, paved with plenty of cracks and blind to a crumbling foundation. Even the silver linings in Fritz Lang’s movies tend to be tarnished.
After several delays that pushed the release back about two months, Exposure Cinema has brought While the City Sleeps to the UK marketplace in an edition that was clearly worth the extra wait. It’s a DVD that seems to do most everything right. The R2 disc is dual-layered, thoughtfully put together, and priced right. Indeed, it’s likely to cost buyers on both sides of the Atlantic less than they would pay for a single Warner Archive DVD-R. (And, if I understand the rights situation of the film correctly, that’s probably where it’ll end up in R1-land.)
The film has been progressively transferred and looks more than satisfactory, exceeding any reasonable expectations. It can be a little inconsistent at times regarding sharpness but the general quality is good. Contrast doesn’t reveal overly deep blacks but it too is never less than acceptable. Mild instances of white speckles can be seen from frame to frame. There is no other damage to report. Something that I noticed on multiple occasions is a sudden speeding up of movement, akin almost to watching a silent slapstick comedy. Even considering the PAL format’s 4% speedup, I can’t recall ever encountering such a prominent display of this as seen here. It doesn’t occur often but it is noticeable when it happens. I’m unsure as to whether it’s a consequence of the transfer or a reality of the film that would have always existed.
A possible point of contention with this release is its chosen aspect ratio. Exposure Cinema uses 1.33:1 even though the film was shown wider at the time of its release in cinemas. Clearly, from watching the movie, it works fine in Academy ratio. I’d prefer to not attempt to summon Fritz Lang’s ghost in the hopes of determining his intentions but I’m perfectly happy with the choice of 1.33 used for this release. I believe that Exposure maintains that Lang composed the film in Academy and it was the studio that insisted on presenting it in either 2.00:1 or 2.35:1. I can buy that claim, or at least the idea that Lang was protecting the image for cinemas unequipped to show his film in Scope.
Audio is a no-frills English mono track split between the two front channels. It’s clear, though a little on the low side volume-wise. No jarring instances of pops or the like were heard. I’m also pleased to report that Exposure has offered optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired. They are in a pale yellow color.
While the bonus material included with this release doesn’t shed much light on the film, the extras do indicate some real care has been given to the edition. A rough-looking theatrical trailer (2:21) is here. There’s also an extensive Poster Gallery (4:13) video that includes a collection of lobby cards, newspaper ads, foreign posters and even the book cover for the source novel written by Charles Einstein (half-brother of Albert Brooks). Music from the picture plays during what amounts to a slide show presentation. The Still and Publicity Shots (2:22) unfolds similarly and includes photos of the various actors taken for publicity purposes. The Pressbook Clippings area consists of text screens that can be advanced forward by the viewer. There’s also a little one-page insert inside the case with poster reproductions printed on each side.
How nice to have a new label breathe some life into the classic DVD market by releasing a major title like Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps. Supporting efforts like this, as opposed to, say, the Warner Archive and other burn-on-demand programs, can only lead to good things. I hear that Exposure is prepping Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, also directed by Lang, for release some time next year.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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