While The City Sleeps (1956 USA)

Fritz Lang’s second to last American feature is one of his most cynical pieces of work, consisting of two plot threads deftly coiled together to create an ironic whole. When media mogul, Amos Kyne, dies his playboy son takes over the seat of power. But, knowing he is unable to manage such an organization, he decides to create an executive directorship just below his role to do all the real work and manage the company day by day. Meanwhile, a maniac–‘The Lipstick Killer’– is stalking the city, strangling young women in their homes.

With an intriguing plot and an impressive ensemble approach with the casting, this film offered much and, although it could have been darker in tone, it still offered a lot of potential to be a slick urban mystery. The story is basically a mystery where a group of mercenary journalists compete for a top job by trying to catch a serial killer. Typical for this sort of thing, the journalists are all hard-talking and hard-drinking while still being likable rogues. Despite the fact people were being killed I didn’t feel like it was a race against time. What the story does better is developing the various characters, drawing the drama from their relationships and tensions. Therefore the ensemble cast does pretty well and features a host of big names.

Dana Andrews is the lead of the group and he has a strong presence, although I would have liked him to be a little bit less likeable and more morally questionable as his methods suggest he was. George Sanders is not that great, mainly because his material is not as strong. Conversely, James Craig is better because his material is more interesting. Vincent Price is effective in his role while Thomas Mitchell provides good support and fits the newspaper editor stereotype. Rhonda Fleming and Ida Lupino are much better than Sally Forrest, who is a bit weak when viewed alongside such actors. Robert Warwick and others do well in smaller roles but the guy who played the Lipstick Killer, John Barrymore Jnr,  was a bit of a pain as he seemed to relentlessly ham it up and skulk around all too obviously. A point off for that!

This movie makes some interesting observations about the roles the media can play in the context of high profile crimes. Initially, The Lipstick Killer story is given a high level of prominence because of its sensational nature and its potential for selling newspapers. But it’s also used as an important component in the competition for a top job in the industry. A further view is expressed that comic books encourage gullible readers into criminal acts, and a high ranking cop bemoans the fact that too much information about police methods is published in newspapers etc which makes it harder for law enforcement officers to keep one step ahead of the criminals. Even though little is said explicitly because of the era, and the plot is slow, there is a remarkable amount of implied sex in this film: an entertaining adult sensibility meaning the sleaziness of most of the characters is its most interesting aspect. 🙂

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