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While the City Sleeps (DVD Review)

18 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Vincent Price, John Barrymore Jr.

Shrewdly marketed as the screen pursuit of a punk serial killer who’ll terrorize the entire Naked City if the New York Sentinel can trumpet his deeds enough, director Fritz Lang’s penultimate Hollywood feature is actually a sexually frank (for its day) look at old-school metropolitan journalism, especially in the after-hours. Take one look at Rhonda Fleming in a two-piece doing twist-and-turn exercises around the house in front of clueless husband Vincent Price (ill-coordinated shirt and shorts with dark socks). Even a 9-year-old would suspect that she’s getting naked in the city with someone else — and she is.

I had just turned 9 myself when I convinced my grandmother (during a summer visit) that the nearby walking-distance theater had shoehorned a Roy Rogers or Bowery Boys kiddie matinee into the schedule instead of showing what was on the marquee — and then raced off to catch what became one of the more formative movies of my childhood. Doubling it with another enticing RKO release called The Brain Machine (psycho drug smuggler takes hostages), the theater had been running City’s tantalizing coming attraction all week. Once the trailer spelled out that the main event involved a drugstore delivery guy who strangled women and then wrote “Ask Mother” on the wall in lipstick, it became an instant case of, “No way I’m missing this, even if the Indians are playing the Yankees on TV this afternoon.”

But the main thing my grade-school eyes took away from the film — and this pretty well still held true when I later worked for a metropolitan daily in the by then crumbling days of a hugely competitive major market — is that old-schoolers liked and needed to have a humble slosh factory near the paper for their evening retreats. A good chunk of the large semi-name cast here is seen drinking in bars and elsewhere all the time — or, in the case of James Craig (who plays Fleming’s lover) at least looking as if he does. Lead Dana Andrews has two or three drunk scenes despite his character having a TV broadcast to do every night — a creepy dovetail with the actor’s extended real-life battle with alcohol at the time (which he won).

The other thing this shaky but more successful than not Superscope release gets right is the media conglomerate aspect, which hasn’t exactly petered out with the years. Taking his mind off the polo ponies for just a second, newly enshrined mogul Price (dad dropped dead) puts in place a rather sadistic in-house competition for the newly created job of executive editor to call all the shots. An instant blueprint for the backstabbing that ensues, this race involves Pulitzer winner Andrews, Sentinel editor Thomas Mitchell (looking more like someone nearing retirement), wire service chieftain George Sanders and photo editor Craig. Unifying them at least on one level is the front page “Lipstick Killer” hook that Price’s late father himself wanted slapped on the strangler to boost circulation. At one point, Andrews even considers using his fiancée (Sally Forrest) as bait to attract this creep. Thanks, honey, you can hear her telling him — my parents will love it.

Rounding out the cast are then real-life marrieds Ida Lupino and Howard Duff — she as a sob sister, he as a cop. Playing the killer is John Barrymore Jr. — the real-life father of Drew whose overwrought (if not ineffectively utilized) close-ups elicit nervous giggles here. Yet in the one scene where Barrymore has substantial dialogue — with an emasculating mother played by silent star Mae Marsh — he’s rather forceful. For a movie that was shot in the summer of ’55 and half-a-year away from Elvis Presley’s national breakout, you have to give Lang credit for anticipating Barrymore’s Elvis look — the one that intimidated so many parents and invited them to term the singer a “hood” (the first time I ever heard the term, it was in conjunction with Presley). The character also bears some of the psychological scars exhibited by Robert Walker’s nut job in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, though they are further compounded by the time Barrymore spends with that great topical social villain and Congressional target of the day: comic books. Probably not a stack of Little Lulu’s, either.

Despite the large cast and keen use of widescreen throughout, this was a low-budget affair just as RKO and Lang’s Hollywood career were winding down in the same year — though Lang’s swan song (also with Andrews) would follow in three months. That was Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which is also just out as a Warner on-demand release. Peter Hyams remade it in 2009 with Michael Douglas — a movie that was all but direct-to-video and no more of a wave-maker than Hyams’ 1990 remake of noir beaut The Narrow Margin. I hope no one ever remakes City, though yes, there has been talk of it from time to time.