While the City Sleeps
Produced by Bert Friedlob; directed by Fritz Lang; written by Casey Robinson, based on the novel The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein; cinematography by Ernest Laszlo; music by Herschel Burke Gilbert; edited by Gene Fowler Jr; starring Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, John Barrymore Jr., Sally Forrest, James Craig, and Ida Lupino. Blu-ray, B&W, 99 min., 1956. A Warner Archive release.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Produced by Bert Friedlob; directed by Fritz Lang; written by Douglas Morrow, based on his screen story; cinematography by William Snyder; music by Herschel Burke Gilbert; edited by Gene Fowler Jr; starring Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine. Blu-ray, B&W, 80 min., 1956. A Warner Archive release.
Reviewed by Darragh O'Donoghue
In While the City Sleeps, a journalist and novelist played by Dana Andrews witnesses the interrogation of an old janitor for the murder of a young woman. Unconvinced, he states, “If that old boy did it, I'll sit on the hot seat for him.” In Beyond a Reasonable Doubt later the same year, the Andrews character, another journalist and novelist, again volunteers for the electric chair, again in a spirit of play.
Very dark play—both films could be thought of as stories about adult boys and their malicious games. In While the City Sleeps, three New York newspaper men try to catch a serial killer in order to win a promotion—set “at each others’ throats like rats” (as described in journalist Charles Einstein’s source novel, The Bloody Spur ), they connive and backstab; use and abandon people like pawns; humiliate and undermine their rivals; sleep with the boss’s wife or pimp out their mistress; in a ruthless, macho sport that sees the actual female victims—already terrorized, assaulted, and murdered—further diminished in consequence as the film continues.
This vicious gamesmanship, however, is as nothing compared to the long game played by Tom Garrett (Andrews) on reality itself and, abetted by Fritz Lang, on the viewer in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. It is impossible to write about this last film without spoilers, so look away now if you have yet to undergo one of the shattering experiences offered by classic Hollywood cinema. Garrett sets out to expose the dangers of a legal system that culminates in capital punishment by planting evidence to get himself wrongly convicted of murder. Lang sets out to expose the simplistic assumptions of a social and cultural system that encourages us to follow this scheme so readily. Once again, it is women of all classes who are betrayed, as powerful, complacent, Oedipally-afflicted, and sex-addicted white men bend reality to their will.
Throughout his long career, Lang often made films in two parts—The Spiders (1919–1920), Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and, after his return to Germany following Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the Indian Epic (1959). It is tempting to see Lang’s last American films as an unofficial diptych—the continuity between milieux and Andrews’s characters as outlined above; the unsavory intersection of crime, surveillance, the media, and the legal system; the unrhetorical style, comprising high-key lighting, apparently static blocking, and diffuse compositions, that has led several myopic critics to dismiss the films as visually gray or “flat”; and the correspondingly undemonstrative performances, underlined by long, unnerving sequences without music. Both films begin with a murder—one by a “sexual psychopath” (Einstein again), the other by the state—that sets in motion groups of machinating male professionals. Both are often cited as late exemplars of the classic film noir cycle, yet both redefine that genre with reference to other, seemingly unrelated categories—the social problem and juvenile delinquency films; the horror movie; the newspaper ensemble piece (a comparative study between While the City Sleeps, shaped by the early death of media magnate Kyne, and Citizen Kane might be rewarding); and even the romantic comedy (Ed Mobley [Andrews] and Nancy [Sally Forrest]’s on-off, obstacle-laden relationship culminating in marriage, bringing into relief the heterosexual depredations of both the sexual predator and those who pursue him). Both have been read as evidence in the director’s late films of Lang’s retreat into cynicism, misanthropy, even nihilism.
More properly both films represent a closing of the circle in his career, as Lang returns to the crime serials with which he began his career. The Spiders, Mabuse, Rotwang (Metropolis), and Haghi (Spies) may have been omnipotent and omniscient masterminds who harnessed the power of technology and adapted and shed multiple identities to transform and manipulate the fictional worlds in which they operated; but there was a relatively secure gap between those worlds and the viewer, who is usually able to isolate and evaluate those reorientations within the films themselves. Four decades, the rise of Nazism, a genocidal world war, and the McCarthy witch-hunts later, the apparently diminished criminal figure in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt achieves something far more radical. (Ab)using popular faith in recording technology and professional masculinity, he succeeds in eliminating that gap between his fiction and the “real world” of the viewer by overlaying one reality with another by seeming sleight of hand. Everything we see in this narrative up to the final revelation is the absolute truth, but we are led to read the evidence erroneously. It is what we don’t see that changes everything—previously harmless conventions of film grammar, such as the overfamiliar dissolve transitioning between scenes, are shown to conceal literally unspeakable acts.
While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt are central to the development of modern cinema—intriguingly, they initiate a strain dominated by mostly Catholic-born filmmakers. Alfred Hitchcock—a keen and opportunistic Lang-watcher since working in the German film industry in the mid-1920s—adapted the unfashionably stripped-down styles of these films for The Wrong Man (1957); supercharged what Douglas Pye (in “Film Noir and Suppressive Narrative: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” in Ian Cameron (ed.), The Movie book of Film Noir, London: Studio Vista, 1994) calls the “suppressive” narrative of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which hides the scenario of a man who murders an awkward wife by manipulating fictional and filmic reality, in Vertigo (1958); and expanded the opening sequence of While the City Sleeps, with its bathroom murder by a mama’s boy presented through a subjective camera, into Psycho (1960). They were equally important to Hitchcock’s cheerleaders and future filmmakers in the Cahiers du cinéma group. François Truffaut discussed both in an important 1958 essay on Lang’s American work; Jacques Rivette’s contemporary review of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is a cornerstone of film studies. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol transplanted Lang’s crime setups to studies of the French bourgeoisie, while his multifariousness was a constant inspiration and goad to Jean-Luc Godard. The contrast between individual and state-sanctioned homicide that offers the pretext for Beyond a Reasonable Doubt would become the central matter of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988).
Despite such a prestigious legacy, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt are being presented in bare-bones, made-on-demand editions in the Warners Archive Collection series. Lang’s American films continue to yield to his prewar German work. Kino Lorber recently issued a deluxe Blu-ray box set of Lang’s silent films (see “Fritz Lang’s Silent Cinema: Far-Flung Geographies, Omniscient Masterminds, and the Laws of Life and Death” by David Sterritt, in Cineaste, Summer 2018), which, like the editions released by the U.K.-based Masters of Cinema label, are sourced from pristine, expensive restorations undertaken by the F. W. Murnau Foundation in Germany. Much of Lang’s American work remains unavailable on home video, or is shamed by inferior, public domain knockoffs. Mediocre contemporaries such as Around the World in 80 Days, Giant, and The King and I, by contrast, are treated to multidisc, supplement-laden “special editions.”
Having said that, the image quality on both these discs belies the canard that these are visually “flat” films—look at the diagonal blocking, or the subtle and sinister use of barely there shadows in domestic interiors in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and marvel. So, deep gratitude to Warner, even if, ultimately, the American Lang deserves much better.
Darragh O’Donoghue, a Cineaste contributing writer, works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 3