While the City Sleeps

Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell and Ida Lupino sitting at a bar

While the City Sleeps is one of the great noir titles. Which is not the same as saying it’s one of the great noir movies. In fact it’s barely noir at all.

Though it does start off looking like it might be. A lurid murder before the opening credits, then titles that come blaring at us in gigantic white letters, while Herschel Burke Gilbert’s title music of clarion brass and shrill strings suggests a great noirish feast is about to be served up. The director’s name – Fritz Lang – also promises the same. He’d done Scarlet Street and The Big Heat, after all, noir lodestones.

There’s been a murder and the murderer has left behind a message scrawled in lipstick on the wall of the apartment where he killed the unlucky woman. “Ask Mother,” it reads, leading us into what actually turns out to be one of the great prototype serial killer movies – Seven takes quite a few of its cues from While the City Sleeps. The murderer who loves to leave a clue, who taunts the police, who acts out of a kind of demented sense of destiny, is a twisted ball of mother-love.

There are three stories in one here. The serial killer story, with Dana Andrews as the crusading journalist Ed Mobley. A love story – of sorts – in which Ed tries to get sexy newspaper secretary Nancy (Sally Forrest) into bed, while she tries to get him to the altar, that’s if hard-bitten hack Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino, laying on the Hedda Hopper) doesn’t peel Ed off first for some booze-soaked sex. And weaving between these two stories is the actual driver of the plot, a neat bit of inter-media rivlary in which the section heads of the gigantic Kyne media conglomerate – a newspaper business, a newswire agency and a TV station – all vie for an editor-in-chief position after old man Kyne dies and his feckless son (played by Vincent Price) takes over.

“While the city sleeps” is when newspaper guys (and they are guys) do their work and this is one of the great heroic-journalism movies, set in a world full of people desperate for a scoop and going into battle armed with the conviction that newspapers are a public good. The days of big bad MSM and fake news are way, way in the future.

The drinking is also heroic and Andrews – who has to play drunk a couple of times – was apparently drunk through the entire shoot. It’s one of his best performances, humane and sparky where he can sometimes be a bit bloodless and flat.

Great performances all round. Thomas Mitchell as the grizzled old editor of the Sentinel, a newspaper guy to his fingertips, George Sanders as the oily boss of the wire service, James Craig grabbing the short straw in an underwritten role as “Honest” Harry Kritzer, the lothario head of pictures who’s also secretly having an affair with the new owner’s hot wife (Rhonda Fleming).

Vincent Price as Walter Kyne
Vincent Price as Walter Kyne

There are three noir females – women who get what they want by manipulating men – Lupino, Fleming and Forrest all coming at the femme fatale from slightly different angles, Fleming as the most overtly wanton, Lupino playing the boozy dame who grabs her kicks where she can and Forrest’s Nancy at the Doris Day end of the spectrum. Perky. And she has been dressed so we notice just how perky.

Lang is an in-camera director, as usual, preferring to do with crane, dolly and track what other directors achieve with an edit in post production. It makes for a gloriously fluid film and the longish takes give his actors something to chew on. Ernst Laszlo, one of the great directors of photography, does a fine job but only really gets his head in the scenes towards the end when Mobley is chasing the serial killer down some subway tunnels lit in a style reminiscent of The Third Man.

The whole serial killer angle is a bit of a feint, really, and John Drew Barrymore (father of Drew) is wheeled out to sweat and boggle his eyes only as and when the other elements of the story, which are doing perfectly well on their own, need a bit of a breather.

For all the many claims to greatness, this is a bit of a potboiler, albeit one done with plenty of craft polish and with a lot of fine actors giving it their best. Having virtually created the noir genre in the mid 1930s, Fritz Lang is effectively bringing it to an end in the mid 1950s with this film and its follow-up, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, a noirish courtroom drama that’s also a bit of a genre mishmash.

Neither is a classic but then the genre, like Lang himself, was exhausted.

While the City Sleeps – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Scarlet Street

Kitty and Chris

There’s a “strike while the iron is hot” aspect to 1945’s Scarlet Street, a quick follow-up to 1944’s The Woman in the Window which reunited the three key cast members – Joan Bennett, Edward G Robinson and Dan Duryea – with director Fritz Lang and the ace cinematographer Milton Krasner.

That was noir and so is this, a remake of Jean Renoir’s 1931 film La Chienne (literally, The Bitch). Renoir didn’t like Lang’s remake and nor, later on, would he like Human Desire, Lang’s remake of his La Bête Humaine.

Edward G Robinson was also in the Renoir camp. He didn’t like working on Scarlet Steet much, considering it too similar to The Woman in the Window. He’s not wrong. There are parallels aplenty, thematic and visual, some overt – Lang closes the film with a shot of a painting in the window of a gallery, which is pretty much how he started and ended The Woman in the Window.

Robinson, Bennett and Duryea could be playing clones of the characters from the earlier film. Robinson is Chris Cross (ho ho), a mild-mannered cashier who happens upon a heel beating up a young woman called Kitty one night in Greenwich Village, and saves her by beating off the man with his brolly. This noble deed wins Chris Kitty’s gratitude in the shape of a coffee at a diner, which turns into something a bit stronger as they get to know each other, a sequence of events cut and pasted from The Woman in the Window. Here as there, the mug is instantly smitten. What the unworldly Chris doesn’t realise is that Kitty is a prostitute (a scarlet woman) and the man beating her (Duryea, though his face wasn’t revealed) is her pimp.

She, also getting things all wrong, takes this penpushing weekend painter to be a seriously rich artist who can be systematically taken to the cleaners, which she proceeds to do, in an operation masterminded by the unscrupulous and feckless Johnny (Duryea).

It’s not a carbon copy of The Woman in the Window. In this one Robinson is married, to an absolutely awful, almost cartoonishly petty wife. She (played by Rosalind Ivan with shrewish relish) was married once before, to a cop who died bravely in the line of duty. Chris will never measure up. Kitty also has an appendage, Millie Ray playing the gal pal whose apartment Kitty is camping out in, and who uses the words “working girl” to describe Kitty, which was enough to get this film banned in three US states. Ray is refreshing but her character makes little sense. Perhaps she’s just there to dispel comparisons with the earlier film.

One of Chris's paintings
One of Chris’s paintings. Note snake

It’s a potboiler, heavy on the plot, which becomes more gothic as the hapless Chris is systematically bilked out of money he doesn’t have, robbing his wife and his company to keep within a shot of Kitty. And in a supreme ironic twist, Chris’s hopeless daubs suddenly become hot artistic property, allowing the film to take potshots at artworld hocus pocus of the familiar “my kid could have painted that” variety.

Though Robinson is particularly good, especially in his more despairing moments, Bennett is the film’s star. But then it is a good role. Kitty is the femme very fatale who becomes haughtier and more dirtily magisterial as this sad tale of woe plays out. Until, her facade eventually slipping, she makes the mistake of laughing in the face of the poor Chris, a sap, a dupe, “old” and “ugly”. He responds by… well… 

There are plenty of loose plot strands, which Lang and his writer Dudley Nichols deal with rather brilliantly in a courtroom montage sequence which neatly ties them off, one after the other. There is still, however, a plausibility issue – the character of Chris. For sure this is meant to be a case of “no fool like an old fool” but Chris isn’t a dunce, he’s smart. Which makes his regular misreading of the situations he finds himself in – from the first meeting with Kitty onwards – a bit of a headscratcher.

As regards discs, the Kino Lorber one is a good choice. It’s a hi-def transfer of the 35mm negative from the US Library of Congress. Generally it’s sharp and has a tonally satisfying picture quality thanks to Milton Krasner’s lighting. Because the copyright on this film lapsed there are some truly diabolical copies (or copies of copies) out there, be warned.

Scarlet Street – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Woman in the Window

Alice and the professor meet

Not to be confused with the 2021 movie of the same name, 1944’s The Woman in the Window is the second of three film noirs Fritz Lang made with Joan Bennett and the first of two he’d make with Edward G Robinson. It’s a queer beast – noir with a plot trick picked up from The Wizard of Oz, a trick used so brilliantly it rescues what looks like a film that’s gone weirdly off the rails.

Robinson plays the tweedy psychology professor called Richard, Dick to his friends – Sigmund Freud bubbles around beneath the surface of this plot and that name is no accident – who, while admiring a portrait of a hot babe in a gallery window, turns to see that Alice, the babe herself, is standing in the street beside him. Rapidly leaving his comfort zone, Dick is soon improbably in a club having a drink with Alice, a femme so fatale that you can see her nipples through her sheer top.

It’s all too good to be true, of course, and the fact that the prof is bathed in the sort of gauzy lighting usually reserved for female stars, while Alice is not, suggests that he’s more the quarry than the hunter, an impression only emphasised when she invites him up to her place to see her etchings (sketches of her, in fact).

One death later and the dream has turned to a nightmare, the professor has a body to get rid of and the cops are on his tail. More to the point, though no one actually suspects him, he’s almost giving the game away repeatedly with a series of blunders that the professor’s old friend and drinking buddy, District Attorney Frank Laylor (Raymond Massey), cannot help but have noticed, surely?

The plot is a light lift from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and its theme of self-incrimination would later be used week in, week out in the Columbo TV series (which also acknowledged its debt to Dostoevsky). But in 1944 it was more likely 1930’s The Blue Angel – professor loses head to a nightclub singer – that came to mind.

Heidt blackmails Alice
It’s blackmail: Heidt and Alice

The casting is interesting. Both Bennett and Robinson had started out with completely different screen images than the ones on display here. She’d been the breathy blonde ingenue in a string of films, but after dying her hair dark, pitching her voice a bit lower and swinging the equipment around a bit more, became a classic (and hugely popular) screen vamp. Robinson, by contrast, had risen to fame as a gangster in movies like 1931’s Little Caesar, but then stayed at the top by broadening his range, often playing men like the professor – quiet, unassuming guys with hidden depths.

Playing to type, on the other hand, is Raymond Massey as the DA, Massey’s bark and gimlet eye suggesting he knows that the professor is guilty of something even though the script insists he doesn’t – it’s the tension between Massey’s performance and Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay that give the film much of its fizz.

A technical whizz, Fritz Lang’s fluid camera slides in and out of scenes, often on a crane even on low shots, which is how he’s able to glide over obstacles and get right up into the fact of the professor or Alice at key moments. The dialogue, too, is taut and there’s barely a line in Johnson’s screenplay that isn’t the setup to a later payoff.

With half an hour still to go, it all seems to be a case of not if but when will the professor finally expose himself. And then Dan Duryea (again, playing right to type as the “heel with sex appeal”) turns up as a blackmailer trying to shake Alice down.

In the weird finish alluded to in the opening paragraph, Heidt (Duryea) is dealt with in a way that satisfies none of the rules of storytelling, or film noir, or anything at all, until, in a bravura reverse, Johnson’s screenplay brings the whole thing to a conclusion with a twist that is not only satisfying but asks us to look again at some of the storytelling twists and turns we were doubtless only too happy to go along with earlier in the film.

The end. Lang, Bennett, Robinson and Duryea would be back the following year with Scarlet Street, in which something like the same characters run through another satisfying noir scenario featuring silly Edward G, mercenary Joan and bad Dan.

I’m linking to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, a decent version (there are some bad ones out there).

The Woman in the Window – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

You Only Live Once

Joan and Eddie on the run

Fritz Lang’s second Hollywood picture, You Only Live Once, was released in 1937, three years after the death of Bonnie and Clyde, and was the first movie to tell their story – sort of. A tale of bad luck and trouble rather than one of bad people doing bad things, it stars Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney as a couple in love – she a sweet girl who works for the Public Defender, he a threetime jailbird determined to go straight and make an honest woman of his wife-to-be but finding that society won’t give this sucker an even break.

Blocked at every turn, Eddie (as Clyde is called here) turns back to crime, gets caught, winds up on death row, then shoots his way out of jail just as – the fickle finger of fate – he’s about to be pardoned. Hitting the road in fugitive style, Joan and Eddie then end up in the shootout finale which Arthur Penn’s 1967 movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway immortalised.

It’s often credited as being the first film noir. But its emphasis on difficult material meant that its passage into the world was problematical. Lang had left Germany in 1933 and arrived in Hollywood just as Hollywood was upping the ante when it came to censorship. The Supreme Court had unanimously decided in 1915, in Mutual Film Corporation v Industrial Commission of Ohio, that the right to free speech did not extend to motion pictures. As a result, censorship boards had started springing up in various states. To ensure its films would be acceptable to all the various boards, whether it was New York or Ohio, Hollywood decided it needed to bring in its own code.

Though this was a half-hearted and patchy implementation at first, 1922, 1927 and 1929 were all ratchet years. It wasn’t until 1934 that the Production Code Administration started rigourously enforcing standards. It’s for this reason that there is about 15 minutes of missing material in You Only Live Once, much of it from the bank raid that’s the centrepiece of the film, and which results in Eddie winding up back in jail.

So the film plays at about 86 minutes rather than the original 110. Even butchered it both makes sense and works well, though without the violent, excised material it probably comes over as more moralistic than Lang had originally wanted and far less nuanced.

Eddie with a mirror full of bulletholes
Mirror mirror on the wall

Lang tells his story visually. Look at the scene where the verdict on Eddie is about to come in and a newspaper editor is sitting with three different versions of the next day’s front page (Guilty, Not Guily and Undecided) up on the wall behind him. A word or two would have sufficed but Lang does it all as a silent movie director would do it (which he originally was, of course), right down to the editor indicating with a finger which front page the printer should run.

He’s aided enormously by ace DP Leon Shamroy, who bathes the romantic scenes between Eddie and Joan in a romantic glow and the jail scenes in the harsh geometrics (light slanting through bars etc) that connect this film up with Lang’s earlier, more Expressionistic output.

Fonda is good as Eddie, though that much-mentioned natural nobility isn’t really working in the film’s favour – again, that excised material would have worked as a counterweight. Sidney, who gets top billing, is a sweet and effective Joan, though her damascene conversion from public-spirited gal to fugitive’s moll in the final scenes makes little sense.

The censor’s cuts have robbed the movie of moral heft, which is ironic, but Lang’s intention is clear. Made in the teeth of the Depression, which drove decent people into doing things they wouldn’t normally do, this Bonnie and Clyde wind up in situations that are completely out of their control. Bad luck or bad decision-making on their own can be dealt with, but Eddie’s on the back foot to start with, and Joan’s bad luck (or bad decision-making) is to have fallen in love with Eddie. “You only live once” is another way of saying “tough shit”.

I watched the ClassicFlix restoration, which isn’t as crystal-clear and eye-popping as you might want, but is a marvel when compared to the original elements it was restored from (watch the accompanying special feature, if you get the Blu-ray or DVD, and be amazed).

You Only Live Once – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


Peter Lorre with M chalked on his back

The point of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M – Eine Stadt Sucht einen Mörder is slightly lost when its truncated title, simply M, is used. This is a story not about a murderer (which is what the M stands for) but about the mob, when the rule of law is rejected in favour of a lynching.

Which all comes as a bit of a surprise if you’re watching M for the first time and only know it from its reputation. There are two other things that most people coming fresh to this film already “know”. These are a) that M is an expressionist masterpiece and b) it’s got Peter Lorre in it.

Dealing with these two swiftly, M is not a particularly expressionist movie – see Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Paul Leni’s Waxworks if that’s what you’re after. And Peter Lorre is barely in it. He’s more a presence, a threat, than a character, until things move into the ugly final few scenes, when Lang’s intentions really snap into focus and Lorre does come into his own.

The other single thing I “knew” about M is that it’s a technically brilliant film. This does turn out to be true, and Lang wastes no time in pulling off several remarkable camera movements (and a very smart edit) in the opening moments of the film, as if to say “relax, take it easy, you’re in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing.”

Expressionism lurks at the edges, but for the most part Lang lays out the blueprint for the police procedurals we still avidly consume. The based-on-fact premise. The shadowy serial killer writing taunting letters to the police. The pin board where evidence is displayed for our benefit as much as the police’s. The forensics effort going into trapping the killer scientifically. The political pressure from “upstairs” on the hard pressed police. The inspired “I’ve got a hunch” moment. The loved-ones of the victims used as window dressing. The freak chance that eventually nails the villain. And so on.

A poster offering a reward for the child killer
A poster offers a reward for the child killer

It’s not all here: there’s no sign of a maverick cop with a messy backstory, for instance, but we’re most of the way there. Instead Lang and co-writer Thea von Harbou (his wife) present a still-audacious story of a town that bands together to nail the killer, not because they’re appalled at the crimes (though they are) but because the killer is bad for business – the cops are exhausted, the takings in the city’s bars and clubs are down, the criminal underworld is being tarred with the killer’s brush. These three groups are not all working in concert, but they are all pointing in the same direction, the masterstroke coming when the underworld, in a meeting in a smoky room intercut with the cops’ meeting in another smoky room in another part of town, decide to turn the city’s many beggars into an proto-CCTV network – eyes and ears everywhere. The murderer’s days are numbered.

Talking of blueprints, Peter Lorre is the template for every child-killing murderer ever since. In reality most murdered children are killed by their parents, but here Lorre’s Hans Beckert is the creepy, smooth-skinned, shifty, boggle-eyed weirdo we’ve now come to expect from screen killers. The role made Lorre’s name but he came to resent the box it put him in.

As said, he’s not in it much. Glimpsed as a shadow in one of the opening scenes, Lorre’s Hans disappears for much of the film, returning in time to be chased down by a crowd that’s lost its head and has decided that the criminal justice system will be too lenient on the man if he’s caught. They’re grim, these final scenes, and the terrified Hans does yank at our sympathies. Lang is more interested in the crowd.

A superbly tight drama, Lang’s first talkie also features whole stretches done as a silent movie. An added bonus is its picture of the Weimar era just before Hitler rose to prominence, using a manipulation of the mob as his engine. Unsurprisingly, Hitler banned it as soon as he came to power. Intriguingly, it was also the last film that Lang would collaborate on with his wife, Thea. She became a Nazi Party member; Lang, of Jewish descent (as was Lorre) did not and was soon on his way to France and then the US, where he’d become one of the archetypal monocle-wearing tyrannical directors of legend.

M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder – Watch /buy the restored Criterion version at Amazon

Fritz Lang Box Set, including Metropolis, M and The Testament of Dr Mabuse – Buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021