Thursday, December 7, 2017

While the City Sleeps

Fritz Lang throws the everything at you including the kitchen sink in his 1956 While the City Sleeps.  The 105 minute films yaws alarmingly between genres, mashing together a police procedural with a nasty serial killer plot all framed by a sour expose of corruption in the media ("fake news" during the age of Ike).  The effect is a little like The Boston Strangler mixed up with The Sweet Smell of Success with a little bit of Citizen Kane tossed in for a good measure.  The film doesn't exactly work -- it's so cynical that the audience can't get traction on any of its vicious and conniving characters, but the film's decadent depravity is certainly consistent and carefully considered.  The mistake that a first-time viewer makes relates to expectations:  we expect the film will show one or more of its characters as a little less depraved than the others on view.  But Lang resolutely refuses to allow any of his protagonists even a trace amount of human goodness -- everyone in the film is a pig of one sort or another.  I would have had more fun watching the film if I had figured out its remorselessly cynical view of human nature from the very outset -- as it was, I was confused for half the film, wondering whether the principal characters, most notably Ed Mobly (Dana Andrews) were really as smarmy and vicious as they seemed.  I spent the better part of the movie wondering if the defect was in the script or me -- is it just that I don't like Dana Andrews?  Or is he doing something to make me despise him?  Only when the ultimate design of the film is clear do we realize that there's no hero in this picture, only villains of one sort or another.

Lang's films generally feature some sharp and vivid moment of violence  and some kind of visual aria, some punctum to use Barthes' term that seizes the eye and engages the imagination (for instance, the prostitutes riding their cowboy customers in a sordid kind of brothel horse-race in Rancho Notorious).  While the City Sleeps doesn't afford any obvious pleasures of this sort -- Lang cuts away from the violence and there are no memorable set pieces in the film.  Furthermore, the movie has an exceptionally complex plot with too many characters and so the film sometimes seems a little rushed and aimless at the same time -- Lang is trying to do too much in too little time and his cinematic shorthand is sometimes indistinguishable from sloppy movie-making.  Kyne, a media magnate like Hearst (or Citizen Kane) is on his death bed.  He learns of a serial killer, murdering girls in New York City, and, more or less, with his dying breath tries to gin up public hysteria by dubbing the psycho-murderer, "the Lipstick Killer."  After Kyne's death, his effete son, played effectively by Vincent Price, appears on the scene.  For sadistic reasons, Price's Kyne Jr. sets up a competition between the "ink-stained wretch" managing the newspaper, the manager of the wire service, and another journalist, possibly a sports writer -- whomever solves the case of "the Lipstick Killer" first will be promoted to the head of the media empire owned by Kyne Enterprises.  Dana Andrews is just a newspaper employee and not in the competition, but he sets out to solve the crime to help his editor, the publisher of Kyne's Sentinel.   George Sanders plays the man who runs the wire-service -- he is a silky smooth sexual harasser who gropes (and tries to kiss)  his secretary (Rhonda Fleming) who turns out to be Ed Mobly's fiancée.  The sportscaster is romancing Kyne Jr's wife, a florid, big blonde who reeks of mid-fifties sexuality.  (Vincent Price got up in boyish looking golf  togs -- short pants a little like the foreshortened trousers worn by the hero in Metropolis -- practices putting while his huge cartoon wife, nearly naked, does calisthenics casting her caricature shadow on a huge screen in the foreground of the image.)  The serial killer keeps knocking off girls and the police follow leads (there's an indefatigable detective who was Mobly's war buddy during WWII) and the three competing department heads scheme to derail each other's efforts to solve the crime.  Ultimately, Ed Mobly, who's posited as the hero of this film, decides to use his fiancée, whom he has just betrayed with Ida Lupino (who plays the femme fatale gossip columnist) as bait to catch the psycho-killer.  But the murderer, a snarling homosexual "mamma's boy" attacks the wrong girl -- he assaults the big blonde who is Kyne Jr's girlfriend (and the sports journalist's mistress.  There's a little bit of a chase through the subway and, then, the bad boy killer with his leather jacket and switchblade is apprehended; he's a bit like Lang's fantasized version of a sullen Elvis Presley, the man's lip permanently twisted in a malevolent snarl.  (The mamma's boy killer has the great silent film actress, Mae Marsh -- she was in Griffith's Intolerance -- playing the role of his longsuffering mother.)  After the bad guy confesses and there's an Extra to the newspaper published, there's a couple of blackmails resulting in a notionally happy ending in which Dana Andrews gets to strip and grope, and, then, have sex with Rhonda Fleming in a sordid hotel room somewhere in the south.  Andrews spends the whole movie drunk or hungover.  There's a  tavern conveniently located in the basement of the skyscraper where the Kyne empire has its headquarters and all the characters, including the lusciously seductive Ida Lupino, drink there into the wee hours of the night. The murderer enters the apartments of his hapless victims by pressing a button in their door latches to keep the door from locking when it is shut.  Lang makes a point that is none too subtle when we see Ed Mobly use the same trick to break and enter his girlfriend's apartment -- presumably to rape her since he's  always drunk and continuously engaging in sexual innuendo of a coarse kind -- the film is sort of a museum embalming the rawest kind of pre-JFK sexual harassment. We gasp at this touch and Lang's audacious equation of his hero with the serial sex murderer -- and, at first, we think this is just a cynical touch.  But, in fact, the equation is thematic -- the apparent hero is just as vicious as the film's ostensible bad guy and the way that the media uses the murders to sell newspapers mirrors the way the film hitches the sex-criminal plot to its sardonic attack on the media, a similarly opportunistic suturing together of two unrelated themes.  Make no mistake, Dana Andrews is supposed to be just as smarmy and repugnant as you think that he is as the film progresses.  He's not likeable because  he's playing a bad man.                                                                               

1 comment:

  1. A complex film built on denials, of homosexuality, of alcoholism, of desire. The reporter genre is full of drinkers. Vincent Price exhibits a sort of worldly masculine dominance as a spoiled homosexual and great pretender.