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.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

On Dangerous Ground

Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan

One of the most cultish of Hollywood directors, Nicholas Ray, made his directorial debut in 1949. 1951’s On Dangerous Ground was his seventh film in two years (eighth, if you count Roseanna McCoy, where he replaced director Irving Reiss). If this maverick made films in hurry, he matched that with films that also moved at speed.

On Dangerous Ground almost tells two stories before heading off to tell two more. The linking factor is Robert Ryan, in one of his trademark masculine-but-neurotic roles, playing Jim Wilson, a cop with a tendency to punch first and think later.

First up, there’s a cop killer on the loose, and Wilson, along with buddies Pop (Charles Kemper) and Pete (Anthony Ross) are trying to track him down. This segues gradually into a story about everyday policing in 1950s urban America. With the cop-car radio squawking the entire time, Wilson, Pop and Pete deal with a string of bums, stool pigeons and underage drinkers (look out for the entirely sensational blur-on-blur-off Nita Talbot) before arriving at bleach-blonde Myrna (Cleo Moore), a woman of dubious morality who might have something to do with the murder case – “I like to stink myself up,” she drawls, applying perfume, her “fuck you” attitude marking her as someone to watch.

And then writer Albert Bezzerides (look out for him as a customer who likes a bet in the first bar Wilson goes into) ties all those ends off and redirects Wilson upstate to help with tracking down a child killer (story three), where he meets and falls for a blind woman (Ida Lupino), who may well be the salvation this tortured soul needs.

It’s a lot to pack into one hour 22 minutes, but Ray somehow does it without the film feeling breathless. In fact there’s a stately quality to it all, partly as a result of Ray’s use of the frame (director of photographer George Diskant’s lighting finely differentiating the grey tones) and his fondness for mixing it up – a handheld camera here, an obvious bit of back projection there, location and studio switching back and forth.

Myrna and cop Jim Wilson
Cleo Moore, Anthony Ross and Robert Ryan

Bernard Herrmann’s never vamps and makes the most of every second. Some of it might sound familiar if you’ve seen Hitchcock’s North by Northwest a few times. Listen out for when Wilson and the dead child’s father are chasing the killer by car, sliding about dangerously in the snow, and the music becomes urgent and staccato.

Lupino gets top billing but she’s not the star, and doesn’t even arrive on screen until about 40 minutes in, playing the sort of blind woman Hollywood rather fancied in those days, all “may I touch your face?” and tortured thousand-mile-stare. It’s Ryan’s film and it tells only his story – from angry loner to a guy who starts to question whether life lived in isolation is really worth it. Ray sets this up beautifully. From the instant we see the interior of the house of blind Mary (a redemptive name if ever there was one), we know he’s going to fall for her. It’s warm, there’s a fire roaring in the hearth, the furnishings are soft and welcoming, the lighting is warm and cosy. Herrmann’s score goes all woozy and one member of his orchestra starts playing an instrument called the viola d’amour, so integral to the film it gets a special mention in the credits. Who can resist?

Whether Nicholas Ray did or did not go absent on the film and whether Ida Lupino did or did not step in to direct during his absence is all a bit hazy, but Ray wasn’t in the best state of mind the time. He was a terrible drinker, had run afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee and his marriage to Gloria Grahame was in trouble, so it’s plausible he went AWoL. Perhaps more interesting is the film’s title – what is the dangerous ground whereof it speaks? Marriage and the prospect of settling down? The infamously polyamorous Ray would concur.

Seen through modern eyes, On Dangerous Ground is notable for its use of outdoor locations when possible, for the overacting of Ward Bond, as Walter, father of the dead child, and for an early manifestation of a 1950s trope, the troubled teenager (played by Sumner Williams). This was two years ahead of Marlon Brando’s tearaway in The Wild One (“Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?”) and four years ahead of Rebel without a Cause, also directed by Nicholas Ray. Obviously slowing down, he’d directed five films in the interim.

On Dangerous Ground – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Hitch-Hiker

L-R: Frank Lovejoy, William Talman, Edmond O'Brien

1953’s The Hitch-Hiker opens with an on-screen declaration: “This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours – or that couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.”

A gun, a man, a car, those staccato sentences, the threat of death – it’s film noir, and an unusual one not because of its length (a lot of noirs were short B movies), but because it was directed by Ida Lupino, a rare female voice in among the big swinging dicks of the noir genre.

Lupino, born in the UK to a family that could trace its showbiz roots back at least as far as renaissance Italy, had started out as an actress in British films, and eventually arrived in Hollywood in 1933. She didn’t like acting much so used her downtime on set to learn the nuts and bolts of picture-making. Realising there was a niche for production companies that could bring in decent B movies on budget, she set up The Filmakers Inc with her husband and co-wrote and directed a string of films with a “social” theme – men behaving badly towards women that usually meant – such as 1949’s Not Wanted (unwanted pregnancy) and 1950’s Outrage (rape).

She co-writes and directs again in The Hitch-Hiker, which has far less “social” content than any of her films to date. It’s more straightforwardly an entertainment, and one that gets off to a brisk start with a hitch-hiker – only legs and feet in shot – jumping into a car at the roadside, shortly afterwards killing the driver, then moving on to the next victim in another car.

Bad guy established, we meet the good guys – Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy as a pair of old buddies who have told their wives they’re off for a bit of shooting in the mountains. In fact they’re heading down Mexico way for fun, girls, the full packet, or at least that’s what mechanic Roy (O’Brien) wants. The staider, more professional Gilbert (Lovejoy) isn’t so sure. In fact neither man gets what he wants, because both find themselves at the wrong end of the hitch-hiker’s gun after being the latest saps to give him a ride.

Lupino gives us a faceful of the bad guy all in one go, gimpy eye and all, by having William Talman, as gun-toting desperado Emmett Myers, leer forward into a dramatically positioned pool of light. It’s a neat shock reveal, and that half-closed/half-opened right eye is going to become crucial as the plot progresses – Roy and Gil cannot ever be sure if Emmett’s asleep and so jumping him becomes problematical.

Emmett: close up on gimpy eye
Keeping an eye out: Emmett

The plan is straightforward – Emmett wants the guys to drive him through Mexico to the port of Santa Rosalia, where he’ll first kill Roy and Gil and then jump on a ferry to freedom. On their tail are the cops, threatening to close the gap every time their quarry hits an obstacle – a flat tyre, mechanical malfunction, the need to buy groceries without alerting the shopkeeper as to who they are.

Lupino works the variations while Lovejoy and O’Brien pull variations on looking scared and feeling emboldened enough to try something. Talman, as what is in effect a serial killer, plays an angry man rather than a mad one, who kills out of necessity rather than blood-lust. In fact, as this short film wanders through its 70 minutes, the suspicion starts to grow that Emmett Myers might even be warming to Gil and Roy, who are guys’ guys like himself when all is said and done.

The action cuts a couple of times back to the copshop where a Mexican police captain and a slick US “Government Agent” indulge in chit-chat about the progress of the trio and the cops’ pursuit. It looks at first like a time-killing reiteration of events we’ve just seen on screen but it also draws a subtle parallel between the car, where there’s a guy in the back with a gun on the driver, and this office, where the guy who’s ostensibly in charge (the Mexican) might not be.

Nicholas Musuraca, one of the great underhymned cinematographers of old Hollywood, shoots it all gorgeously – that black car barrelling through the bright desert landscapes, those inky nights when Roy and Gil fancy their chances – and Lupino directs with concision. This film keeps moving.

It’s not only a good film but an unusual one – female director, set in Mexico (though shot in California), with much use of the Spanish language, to the point where Emmett’s lack of ability to speak the lingo becomes a crucial plot element. Having learned a thing or two from her “social” films, Lupino makes an effort to keep things real and it really pays off.

PS: If you want a shiny disc of this movie, to have and to hold from this day forward, I recommend the Kino Lorber remaster (it’s the one linked to below).

The Hitch-Hiker – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022