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While the City Sleeps & Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

by Glenn Erickson Mar 31, 2018

 

The love for Fritz Lang doesn’t quit!  As Lang’s biographers point out, his American films consistently focus on moral and psychological questions in crime. Lang saw murder as more than a dramatic tool as he probed for weaknesses in the legal system. His final American pictures — two separate disc releases — make excellent use of good actors. Dana Andrews stars in both, backed by name stars set loose from the studio system.


While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Separate Blu-ray releases
Warner Archive Collection
B&W / 2:1 widescreen / Street Date March 13, 2018 / 21.99 each
Original Music: Herschel Burke Gilbert
Produced by Bert E. Friedlob
Directed by
Fritz Lang

 

Fritz Lang’s final American films.

The amazingly creative Fritz Lang almost singlehandedly pioneered a number of key genres: the fantasy epic, the gangster film, the spy thriller, and the science fiction film — all before the start of the sound era. Continuing his career in the United States, Lang’s spy chases and crime exposés examined the nature of the law and justice, and the moral limitations of society. His socially conscious protest pictures Fury and You Only Live Once are also cinematic masterpieces.

Industry testimonials have established that the dictatorial Fritz Lang was also one of the most disliked directors working in Hollywood. He didn’t play studio politics well and some actors refused to work with him a second time. On the other hand, star Vincent Price described Lang as, “such a wonderful man. Charming, cultured, a really intelligent man. An artist.” Never finding a steady career roost, the director shifted from studios to independent producers, scoring just enough hits to keep going. This pattern pretty much played out in the middle 1950s as the industry retrenched for hard times. Lang returned to MGM to make the costume drama Moonfleet and then filmed what would become his last two American pictures back to back for the independent producer Bert Friedlob. They were made very economically, enlisting name stars a few years past their prime. Lang fashioned each show to address a growing issue in American crime: Is capital punishment a good policy? And how does the media deal with a serial killer?



While the City Sleeps
1956 / 100 min. / available through the WB Shop / 21.99
Starring: Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Sally Forrest, John Drew Barrymore, James Craig, Robert Warwick, Mae Marsh, Celia Lovsky, Vladimir Sokoloff.
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Film Editor: Gene Fowler Jr.
Written by Casey Robinson from a book by Charles Einstein

 

Filmed as ‘News is Made at Night,’ the complex While the City Sleeps coordinates numerous characters in a classy screenplay by veteran scribe Casey Robinson. The very modern construction contrasts the psychoses of the twisted young ‘lipstick killer’ Robert Manners (John Barrymore, Jr.) with the nasty office politics at Kyne Media Enterprises, which revolve around money, power and sex. When the rich founder dies, his arrogant son Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) takes over the empire, which includes newspapers, a news wire service and a TV network, each run by an aggressive male: Pulitzer prizewinning TV news anchor Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), sneaky news wire chief Mark Loving (George Sanders), crusty newspaper editor Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) and the unscrupulous photo editor Harry Kritzer (James Craig).

 

Kyne announces a competition for a new executive position, declaring that the man who catches The Lipstick Killer will get the job. Women’s reporter Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) watches with interest as Loving and Griffith jockey for the best shortcut to the prize. Harry Kritzer is carrying on an affair with Kyne’s wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming) and seems to think that her influence gives him an inside track. The principled Edward Mobley seems the best candidate despite being a heavy drinker. He’s keen on nabbing the Lipstick Killer, but not for the promotion. He and detective Burt Kaufman (Howard Duff) plan to set their trap by using Mobley’s own fianceé Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) as bait.

Lang made the first sympathetic examination of a child murderer back in 1931 with his initial sound film “M”. Twenty-five years later he’s still fascinated by the way society reacts to a deadly menace. Barrymore Jr.’s Robert Manners in While the City Sleeps is a mama’s boy with a fierce desire to vent his aggressions on helpless women. The main irony over at the Kyne building is that the legitimate drive for money and advancement is presented as being almost as recklessly anti-social as the depredations of the insane killer. The business of disseminating the news comes in a distant second to the political infighting. The executives couldn’t be happier than when one of their underhanded tricks makes a competitor look bad. Only Ed Mobley seriously attacks the problem of identifying the Lipstick Killer. Like Howard Beale twenty years later in Network, he decides that his broadcast pulpit can be used to goad and taunt the killer into showing himself. Lang amuses himself by directly comparing Mobley with the Lipstick Killer. Both use the same trick to enter a girl’s room unawares. Mobley’s uncouth, alcohol-fueled advances to Nancy (“I want to explore in uncharted territory…”) are as obsessive as the twisted mother fixation that prompts Manners to kill beautiful women.

 

Straining their old boy’s club alliances, the Kyne executives use the downstairs bar as a GHQ to float their various plots and strategies. Mobley’s plan works in that it prompts Manners to seek a personal vengeance against the reporter who calls him a crybaby over the television. Seen today, the clearly alcoholic Mobley himself is barely fit to do battle. He foolishly alienates Nancy over the attentions of Mildred Donner, who would love to poach Ed for herself. The jealously angry Nancy forgets that she’s in potential danger at a terrible time, just as the killer has learned where she lives.

The title While the City Sleeps implies that the public is unaware that the real workings of the city are organized chaos. In contrast to the reassurance offered by other ’50s stories of high-stakes games in American business, an extended epilogue shows us an even more absurd reshuffling of the executive pecking order at Kyne Enterprises. Compared to the Robert Wise film Executive Suite, Sleep’s crowded offices with their constant banter feels more like something from a 1930s cops ‘n’ reporters drama — a newspaper, TV news organization and wire service are all being run in the same set of cramped rooms. Lang’s movie implies that society is becoming more stressful, and perhaps nearing a breaking point. The moral stakes are bigger than ever, and the city’s ‘responsible’ media men don’t seem to be up to the task.

While the City Sleeps is one of the better pictures from RKO’s twilight year, and an excellent late-period film noir. Casey Robinson’s screenplay gives the ensemble cast of seasoned pro actors plenty to work with, and something interesting is always happening. Earning mostly positive reviews, it’s considered one of Fritz Lang’s better American movies. Writer Robinson or Fritz Lang or both apparently subscribed to Doctor Wertham’s theory that violent comic books have a direct relationship to crime, as that issue is harped on more than once in the screenplay. Producer Friedlob played up the angle with a publicity announcement that invited a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency to use the movie as “a weapon in the growing battle against the corrupting force of comic books on young minds.” But the show presents the killer Robert Manners as a comic book delinquent menace. He often wears black leather, and (I think) his lower lip has been given a makeup do-over to give his face a permanent snarl.

On the other hand, Sleeps now seems to foresee the later sex-in the office sagas that inspired cable TV’s Mad Men. Both Ed Mobley and Mark Loving badger and harass Nancy Liggett, who has to put up with demeaning sexual advances mild and overt. 1956 society didn’t fully address alcoholism, but that doesn’t give the Dana Andrews character a free pass. An office Jezebel of the first degree, Mildred Donner has apparently already been Mark’s lover. She does a full-court press on Ed, but doesn’t mind settling for even richer prey. The clever dialogue works in a fair share of suggestive lines. It may not be as hip as later shows, but the oversexed spirit is everywhere. It’s as if the news office is seething under the same pressures that cause the Lipstick Killer to go on the prowl.

In both these movies Lang uses a softer variation on his ‘associative cut’ technique, motivating scene changes with telling bits of dialogue. A mirror in Harry Kritzer’s room provides a framing device, as the lipstick killer spies on Dorothy Kyne straightening her nylons. A few moments later, the same mirror frames the killer’s murderous pursuit. It’s a form of subjective identification, not as strong as that employed by Alfred Hitchcock. Just as in his The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Lang uses a mirror to goad our own voyeuristic imagination. By showing us private things we aren’t meant to see, he implicates us in a killer’s crimes.

The seasoned cast meshes very well with Robinson’s smart dialogue, and most of the characters are given a break, including the scheming-est schemers. Dana Andrews is a charming male chauvinist pig, and Sally Forrest (Mystery Street) makes being alternately petulant and submissive seem like a conscious choice, not a result of bimbo conditioning.

The trailer heralds the film’s ten name actors, which is smart casting. None was actually hot at the time. Let go from MGM five years before, the handsome James Craig was staying busy in TV and program pictures, taking most any part available.

The excellent new transfer shows a detail never noticed before — in one wide street shot in the final chase scene, Dana Andrews’s name is visible on a theater marquee. The IMDB says that the final scene New York subway scene was filmed in the ‘Pacific Electric Subway Tunnel’ in Los Angeles. A subway in L.A. in 1956? That’s news to me. It was part of the Red Car System. The tunnel rails closed in 1955, perfect timing for Fritz Lang’s needs.



Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
1956 / 80 min. / available through the WB Shop / 21.99
Starring: Dana Andrews, Joan Fontaine, Sidney Blackmer, Barbara Nichols, Arthur Franz, Philip Bourneuf, Edward Binns, Shepperd Strudwick, Robin Raymond, Dan Seymour, Joyce Taylor, Carleton Young.
Cinematography: William Snyder
Written by: Douglas Morrow

 

Released later in the same year, the deceptively small-scale Beyond a Reasonable Doubt pays off with a number of genuinely surprising narrative and thematic twists. Fritz Lang and his scenarist Douglas Morrow seem delighted with the idea of a principled man purposely misleading the justice system to prove a point. The movie is talky, as plenty of redundant dialogue is needed to set up the story’s all-important trick premise. Lang, like Hitchcock, was a ‘simplifier’ instead of a ‘complicator.’ Although events seem pretty simple — repeated viewings reveal added nuances to the characters and info for the mystery. Modern audiences now expect every story assumption to be overturned. The finale isn’t quite as shocking as it once was, but film scholars are still debating it.

Determined to make a public statement about the evils of capital punishment, wealthy publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer of Rosemary’s Baby) entreats his future son-in-law, successful writer Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) to cooperate with him on a risky scheme. Consulting the tabloids, Austin and Tom choose the unsolved murder of a showgirl and then rig evidence to frame Tom for the crime. The idea is that, after Tom is arrested and convicted, Austin will come forward with proof of their charade, forcing the courts to pardon Tom and admit that the system can be thwarted to convict an innocent man. Thus Austin will get publicity for his national anti- capital punishment campaign. The process necessitates Tom hanging around the strip club where the victim worked and dating one of her girlfriends, stripper Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols). But the scheme must be kept a secret from Tom’s fianceé Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine). Susan is so hurt by Tom’s Tom-catting behavior that she breaks off the engagement. But she stands by her man when the trial commences.

 

Everything works as planned until the jury goes into deliberations and Austin prepares to take the evidence proving Tom’s innocence to the district attorney. Then Tom suddenly finds himself alone, with no proof that he isn’t guilty as charged, and no Austin to back up his wild tale of a pact to defraud the courts for a good cause.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is almost all talk and little action, yet its intriguing concept carries the day. The challenge for the actors is to make the unlikely events seem believable. We accept the fact that a 1956 audience needs each act of rigged evidence to be spelled out for them; the fun is trying to predict what the story twists will be. Chances are that newcomers to the movie will guess at least one or two of them. With that in mind, I’ll skip further discussion of the film’s major plot points. If you haven’t yet had this movie spoiled, try to avoid reading too much about it before your first viewing.

Even if you conclude that the film’s mystery is can be easily guessed, a second viewing will reveal unexplained events and patterns of behavior that show how carefully Morrow and Lang have worked out their thesis. The disturbing element in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt emerges from the details. If what we know as fact emerges from such tiny clues that can be exaggerated, forgotten or just overlooked, then the moral implications of everything that gets reported in the newspapers isn’t as simple as we think it is. Are right and wrong, guilt and innocence truly knowable, or are they determined by arbitrary factors? Lang questions whether or not individual guilt is really an abstract concept.

 

Finally, the film asks us to question the nature of loyalty in a relationship. At the finish, does Susan Spencer act out of a higher morality, or is she working out her petty personal feelings? Who has betrayed whom?

Unlike its sister film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt received a mixed critical reception. More than one upscale critic was quick to find detail flaws and legal inconsistencies, as if incensed that filmmakers should make such an arrogant charge against our system of justice. The story’s wild coincidences do strain credibility, and some of the evidence planted against Tom is more than ‘circumstantial.’ Audiences probably would have preferred more in the way of action, as a bit of dancing on the burlesque stage is the only break from what is mostly (good) dialogue scenes. The movie was appreciated much more a few years later, when auteur-minded critics reexamining Lang’s career fell over themselves to praise the director’s questioning of the loose ends of legal morality. Austin Spencer’s theory is partly supported by some accidental circumstantial evidence that shows up, that was not planted by the idealistic schemers. Is that Langian Fate stepping in, to give the district attorney an assist?

Early Noir analyst Dennis White (an acquaintance at UCLA Film School) developed some terrific alternate readings of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, based on details in the film’s dense subtext: Tom Garrett receives an unexplained phone call, and postpones his wedding plans for the vague reason of writing a book. White also supposes that audiences expecting a trick plot, will think that Austin Spencer has cooked up the deception to frame Tom for the murder.

Other writers have looked at the story from Susan’s point of view, finding her notion of love to be as cold as Tom’s own calculating self-confidence. Both partners are really in pursuit of social and financial security. Susan’s announcement that she doesn’t care that Tom might be playing around with other women isn’t offered out of jealousy — her love is based on a very narrow set of prerequisites. Finally, for all of his emphasis on chance, Fritz Lang’s movie still endorses the existence of Fate as the driving factor in our lives. Austin and Spencer’s entire scheme is an attempt to cheat Fate, here defined as the Law.

At this point in his career Lang was embracing the limitations of independent productions that could no longer afford expensive art direction. Although Doubt has the look of a TV show, with mostly flat lighting in generic sets, we don’t miss the added frills and extras.


The Warner Archive Collection separate-release Blu-rays of While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt look fine in these new HD scans. Both have been transferred in the Superscope ratio of 2:1 (for some reason, projectionists have always written this ratio backwards). SuperScope, the poor man’s CinemaScope, simply took a horizontal slice out of a normal flat image and squeezed it so it could be projected with an anamorphic lens, which in the middle ’50s could command a slightly higher booking fee for the distributor.

Thanks to producer-researcher Bob Furmanek, the final word on the proper aspect ratios for these films has finally arrived. Filming in 1955, ‘News is Made at Night’ was planned for a release through United Artists, but moved in November to RKO. Its release schedule already hampered by financing woes, RKO didn’t get around to the retitled While the City Sleeps until April ’56, when it announced that the already finished flat-widescreen production would be adapted to SuperScope — but only for foreign screens. In America it was previewed and released in standard 1:85 widescreen. France and Italy received the SuperScope conversion prints. Bob Furmanek’s original research can be read in a series of posts at the Home Theater Forum.

 

Matted down to 2:1 on the WAC disc, Sleeps is a big improvement on the previous DVD, sharp and free of excess grain. It’s also less awkward compositionally. I think it has been framed a bit lower: a close-up insert of a note read by the killer no longer cuts off Ed Mobley’s name. The show might look different in matted widescreen at 1:78, but not necessarily better.

Filmed soon afterward, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was almost certainly planned from the start for the Superscope format. The original trailer included on the disc identifies the format as RK0-Scope. That’s a proprietary name for Superscope 235, which is essentially the same system as today’s Super 35. Superscope 235 exposes the entire 35mm frame left to right, including the soundtrack area, thereby obtaining a higher quality image. The Warner Archive disc of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is reasonably composed for widescreen, and is much kinder to the actor’s chins.

Besting the DVD by far, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is now in excellent shape as well. The audio is quite dynamic, giving us a good concert of Herschel Burke Gilbert’s exciting music scores. A reminder again that these are separate discs from the Warner Archive Collection. Both titles now come with original trailers, the only extra.

With help from Gary Teetzel.
Research: The Complete Films of Vincent Price by Lucy Chase Williams.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson




While the City Sleeps
and
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Separate Blu-rays rate:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer for Beyond
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Separate releases in keep cases
Reviewed: March 26, 2018
(5686lang)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.