While The City Sleeps (1956)

While The City Sleeps (1956) by Fritz Lang is late enough in the cycle to be classed as knowing-noir - an almost self-aware example of the medium, that has mastered the tropes, themes, acting style and drama of the film noir phenomenon - enough to package up the groove and bottle it. 

While still a classic of the film noir style, many of the more significant tropes which formed the medium in the 1940s are curiously absent. While The City Sleeps is not a film of shadows, and neither is it a production heavy with cigarette smoke, hoods in hats and of course femmes fatales.

Still however, While The City Sleeps is considered by many to be a fine example of classic film noir.

It certainly has an A-list of film noir graduate class of 1956 noir as they come actors in it, including Ida Lupino, Dana Andrews, Thomas Mitchell and Howard Duff.

What makes this journalistic story of a psychopathic killer being caught by the press in concert with the cops a classic of film noir then? Perhaps it is because the story it tells of this killer loose in New York, as told by Fritz Lang, simply in and of itself contains enough material to be a Grade A example of the style, as it stood, towards the end of the cycle.

Make no mistake. By the mid 1950s, film noir had evolved from its fantastical, exploitative and above all fun roots in the crime shockers of the 30s and 40s, into something more serious. 

Peak Journalism and Media Noir in
While the City Sleeps (1956)

In the case of Fritz Lang, this often meant that social commentary was going to be a part of the parcel.

The commentary Lang adopts here was familiar territory for film noir in its prime years, in the form of a story told from the point of view of the press, or the media.

The other notable films in this vein would include Ace in the Hole (1951), although there is a further aspect here which is the corporation itself and its role in society. This is most keenly observed in While The City Sleeps by the fact that it is as in other such examples, the press who solve the crime. The same subject is repeated with both Dana Andrews and Fritz Lang, the same year in fact in Beyond A Reasonable Doubt.

Memo: the very first shot of the film reveals the killer

Much of the establishing of the action of While The City Sleeps revolves around the construction in the mind of the viewer, of the mighty and powerful Kyne corporation. This is a large New York based media conglomerate and other then one cop in the form of Howard Duff, and the killer himself, all the many leads in While The City Sleeps are a part of this corporation.

The Kyne corporation is one of the best realised industrial and media giants in the movies of the period. Such corporations are run by either egomaniacs or idiots, which while easy to show in Citizen Kane or for example Caught (1949) by showing the excesses of the leadership, Kyne is shown in more depth, almost from top to bottom, and critically too, its influence on society is shown also.

Vincent Price in While the City Sleeps (1956)

Thomas Mitchell in While the City Sleeps (1956)

George Sanders in While the City Sleeps (1956)

As a quick aside, and having mentioned it, some of the props from Citizen Kane were recycled for use in While The City Sleeps, and this includes some letter K iconography and objects, matching Kyne up with Kane throughout.

The owner of this corporation is young Walter Kyne, played by Vincent Price. At the start of the film, Walter inherits the company, and begins to run it in a more cut-throat and ineffective manner, achieving what he wishes by use of power, rather than through any skill or planning.

Thomas Mitchell and Ida Lupino
Barroom New York in While the City Sleeps (1956)

Walter's plan for the corporation is to award the top job in his business to whichever of the three leading executives manage to solve the murder. This pits George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell and James Craig (playing 'Honest' Harry Kritzer) against each other, and of course exploiting the violent deaths of young women in the process.

Rhonda Fleming in While the City Sleeps (1956)

This cheapening of murder into a construct for the media is a step forward for film noir, and at the same time a serious comment on the stepping forward of society as a whole. Although While The City Sleeps tends to suggest that the media in general is at blame here, the movie does signal out the television, which is featured in this noir, quite like no other.

Dana Andrews is the man in While the City Sleeps (1956)

This being Fritz Lang, we can expect some more complexity than may have otherwise been delivered in 1956. For example, the morals of the males in the film are generally indicative of widespread and casual sexism that Lang seems to be aware of. The views of women's legs are enjoyed not just by the killer, but by the hero too. The grey area of infidelity that Dana Andrew's character inhabits are more to do with him being a man, than the media industry. 

While the City Sleeps is a film noir directed by Fritz Lang that explores the dark side of human nature and the corruption that can exist in powerful institutions like the media. The film is intense for a number of reasons

Phone noir - Sally Forrest and Dana Andrews in
While the City Sleeps (1956)

The film deals with themes such as murder, sexual obsession, and power struggles, which can be intense and disturbing. This was one of the great strengths of film noir across the period, that not only could it discuss such difficult subjects as psychopathy and sexism, it could also do so in light of the mass media's involvement in both.

Dana Andrews and Howard Duff - - real tough guys?
While the City Sleeps (1956)

Fritz Lang is known for his use of light and shadow to create a moody, atmospheric feel in his films, and While the City Sleeps is no exception. The film's stark black-and-white visuals add to its intensity, and as an example in mass-market noir going to finishing school, it is not bad. The more dramatic and fantastic black and whites of the 1940s are long a thing of the past. But Lang can use still darkness as his friend, from time to time.

While the City Sleeps (1956)

The performances: The cast of "While the City Sleeps" includes some of the most talented actors of its time, including Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, and Vincent Price. Their performances are often intense and emotional, which helps to ramp up the tension in the film. The pacing in While the City Sleeps is fast insofar as a lot of information and storylines are drawn together. Yet at the same time the film builds steadily to a climax which can be emotionally exhausting for viewers.

TV Terror in While The City Sleeps (1956)

The cast is large for a picture of this scale, and as well as these six male leads, also features Ida Lupino as a cynical and sexy secretary, willing to use a bit of sex-appeal to get her way; Sally Forrest as the sensible love interest to the leading man Dana Andrews; and Rhonda Fleming as the super sex-symbol and full on cheatin' wife of the boss.

Dana Andrews conversing with the killer on television
While The City Sleeps (1956) by Fritz Lang

The last piece in the puzzle is the young psychopath himself, played by John Drew Barrymore. The very notion of the psycho was something special to film noir throughout the 1940s and 1950s. The criminals before that had always of course murdered for one clear reason or other. 

This new found threat to society was however different. Barrymore plays his psycho as a damaged 'mother's boy', who can only relate to women through violence. Brief attempts are made as is common in film noir, to tie up his actions with some psychological motives. However the best and most interesting aspects of this killer and this movie, are connected to the television.

George Sanders and Ida Lupino connect in
While the City Sleeps (1956)

While The City Sleeps does show us more television than any other film noir. Dana Andrews, who is the chief TV news reporter for the Kyne Corporation is seen in front of the camera from many points of view, illuminating the process of  media and social interaction, and using the medium crucially for the capture of the killer.

This unusual use of television is the suggestive beating heart of While The City Sleeps (1956). Dana Andrews in a key scene speaks directly to the killer through the television, insulting him and goading him into making a mistake, in the form of a wild attack on his own fiancée. The killer, seen reading a salacious comic called The Strangler, is presented as a new kind of social weakling - the television addict.

Psycho killer in While The City Sleeps (1956)

What is incredible about this scene by Fritz Lang and its effect, is that the television really is speaking to the killer, and it ain't just in his mind. The corporate press achieve a superiority over the police that is quite remarkable here, and side-lined, the police seem to be presented in While The City Sleeps as a kind of adjunct or supporting force to the press itself. 

The commentary is complex. The corporate and technical power embodied in the media —  excluding the cinema itself which is absent from While The City Sleeps — is suggestive of a social force that reaches beyond mere police procedural into a new psychological realm, wherein society has totalised into one dominating and superintending entity with law, politics, corporate power and broadcast and print media working as one coherent force to create what may be called 'the culture'. 

The great trick of such a culture is that it is so omnipresent and un-opposed as to be invisible to all.

Sex projected on the big screen in While The City Sleeps (1956)

What is that culture like? Corporate deals that affect millions are done in private over phone calls, while beautiful women seem to dominate the imagery that is driving this same show insane. Why would Fritz Lang show the silhouette of Rhonda Fleming on a screen, which takes up nearly all of the screen, unless he were illustrating something fundamentally crass about the society he is watching come violently apart?

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