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Fritz Lang’s penultimate American film, While the City Sleeps (1956), is a serial killer drama, much like Lang’s classic film M (1931). Robert Manners (John Drew Barrymore), a young man on the prowl, terrorizes modern day New York City as The Lipstick Killer, murdering young women, leaving notes scrawled in lipstick imploring the police to stop him before he kills again. The film is based on the real life serial killer William George Heirens, who as a teenager murdered three women in Chicago in the mid-1940s, and was subsequently caught, tried for his crimes, found guilty, and spent the rest of his life in prison, dying at the age of 85 on March 5, 2012. Heirens’ story was turned into a dime store novel in 1953 by newspaper reporter and sportswriter Charles Einstein, entitled The Bloody Spur, the rights to which were then acquired by fledgling producer Bert E. Friedlob, who, flush with inherited money, was trying to storm the gates of Hollywood. 

Lang at this point in his career was tired, aging, and on the outs with the major Hollywood studios. Having fled Germany in 1933 to escape the Nazis, Lang arrived in America by way of Paris, and started his Hollywood career at MGM, directing the lynching drama Fury (1936). Lang became an American citizen in 1939, subsequently directing such classic noirs as Scarlet Street (1945) and Secret Beyond the Door (1947), along with westerns (The Return of Frank James, 1940) war films (American Guerrilla in the Philippines, 1950), domestic dramas (Human Desire, 1954), and a series of anti-Nazi films, including Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), and Cloak and Dagger (1946). But along the way, the dictatorial and imperious Lang had managed to alienate nearly every producer he worked with. 

To make things even worse, Lang was blacklisted during the HUAC hearings in the early 1950s as a Communist, which he was not, and wasted a year and half fighting the charges, before Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures, hired him to direct the particularly vicious blackmail drama The Blue Gardenia (1953), and later one of his best American films, the crime thriller The Big Heat (1953).

But Lang had long since left Columbia when Friedlob approached him with the project, and though he disliked Friedlob intensely, Lang was captivated by the premise of the film. Lang was also impressed with the way the shooting of the film was organized. With a large ensemble cast, including Dana Andrews, George Sanders, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, Rhonda Fleming and Howard Duff, Friedlob structured the shooting schedule so that nearly all the actors could finish their parts in 4 or 5 days. Working with veteran screenwriter Casey Robinson, Lang shot the film in a matter of weeks as an independent production, which was then released through RKO Pictures, as one of their last offerings before the studio’s collapse in 1959.

Lang opens the film with ominous epigraph “New York City … Tonight,” thus setting the film eternally in the present. The opening sequence follows The Lipstick Killer who, posing as a delivery boy, breaks into a young woman’s apartment and brutally kills her, leaving a message smeared in lipstick on the wall of her apartment: “ask mother.” The identity of the killer is never in doubt for the audience, though the film’s other protagonists are initially left in the dark. The scene then shifts to the offices of Kyne Enterprises and The New York Sentinel, where television news anchor Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) is in conference with the dying head of the corporation, Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) and several other reporters. Kyne seizes upon the murder as a chance to increase circulation, telling his staff that “I want every woman to be scared silly every time she puts any lipstick on. Call this baby The Lipstick Killer, smack across the front page!” 

After the rest of his staff leaves the room, Kyne tries one last time to convince Mobley to take over the organization when he dies, but Mobley, as he has before, refuses the offer. Minutes later, Kyne dies, and Mobley leads off his nightly telecast with an obituary for the publisher. But Kyne’s death allows the publisher’s ne’er do well son Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) to take over as the new head of the company. Unwilling to do any real work himself, Walter pits all his employees against each other in a race to find The Lipstick Killer, promising a hefty promotion to the winner of the contest. 

A major part of the film, then, is the battle between the various star reporters and division heads of the Kyne empire to find and capture the killer before any of the other newspapers get to him. Lang documents this interoffice warfare with deep cynicism, shooting the film in a flat, detached style, without the usual shadowy lighting typical of film noir. The newspaper’s staff are ruthless in their desire to win the promotion, and the film’s one-sheet poster leads with the unusual tag line “they’d sell out their own mothers” to advertise the film, pushing the cutthroat office competition almost to the forefront of the narrative. 

One of the most striking sequences in the film is a live telecast by Edward Mobley in which he addresses the still unknown killer directly in an attempt to bring him out into the open. Watching at home in a darkened room, The Lipstick Killer reacts with fury. “You’re a mama’s boy” Mobley taunts him. “You read comic books,” a reference to the grisly horror comics of the era, which brought about the establishment of the American Comics Code Authority. Remembering that television was in its infancy in 1956, this scene is particularly effective, emphasizing the power of the medium to sensationalize the news on a mass scale. As the murderer, John Drew Barrymore, clad from head to toe in black leather, offers an intensely focused portrayal right in line with Lang’s worldview; in society, there are only victims, and those who would exploit them.

Lang would make one more film with Friedlob, the unremittingly bleak Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), starring Dana Andrews, which in many ways was even more corrosive in its view of humanity than While the City Sleeps. But he could no longer stand Friedlob’s continual interference, and the shoot was much more difficult than it should have been, partly due to Dana Andrews’ raging alcoholism. For Lang, it was the end of his American career, a period of exactly twenty years and roughly twenty films, not to mention numerous unrealized projects. 

Leaving Beyond a Reasonable Doubt in the hands of editor Gene Fowler, Jr. (Fowler also cut While the City Sleeps), Lang decided to try his luck in Germany once again, directing the lavish two-part spectacle Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (1959), and his final film Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960), returning at last to the fictional master criminal Dr. Mabuse, whom Lang had first invented in the 1920s. 

Yet even in these final films, Lang ran into trouble; he openly feuded with Artur Brauner, the producer of all three films, and when Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal were released in the United States, both parts of the film were combined against Lang’s wishes, the original running time of 198 minutes was cut to just 95 minutes. Further compromised by abysmal dubbing, the result was released by American International Pictures under the nondescript title Journey to Lost City (1960). With that, Lang essentially retired, except for a memorable appearance as himself in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (1963).

While The City Sleeps is thus a memorably complex and brutal film. The Lipstick Killer becomes almost a secondary aspect of the plot, while Lang centres a great deal of attention on the corporate backstabbing at Kyne Enterprises. No one in the film is above reproach; they are either weak willed scoundrels like Walter Kyne, pitting one employee against another, or ambitious social climbers, each one trying to outwit the other to solve the case and win the promotion. The serial killer aspect of the film may have initially attracted Lang, but in the end, the film is also about the collapse of journalistic integrity, even as it doubles as a critique of American society. Lang, to the end, was both a moralist and a fatalist. In While the City Sleeps, he sketches a rough draft of the brutality of modern existence, in which media conglomerates whip up a hysterical public while a killer runs amok, and no one is without blame. 

While The City Sleeps (1956 United States 100 min)

Prod Co: Bert E. Friedlob Productions Prod: Bert E. Friedlob Dir: Fritz Lang Scr: Casey Robinson, from the novel by Charles Einstein Phot: Ernest Laszlo Ed: Gene Fowler Jr. Prod Des: Carroll Clark

Cast: Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, John Drew Barrymore

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press, which has to date published more than twenty volumes on various cultural topics. He is the author of more than thirty books on film history, theory, and criticism, as well as more than 100 articles in various academic journals. He is also an active experimental filmmaker, whose works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. His recent video work is collected in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He has also taught at The New School, Rutgers University, and the University of Amsterdam. His recent books include Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (2019), The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (2017), Black & White Cinema: A Short History (2015); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon's book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third, revised edition was published in 2018. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. Dixon is currently at work on the second, expanded edition of his book A History of Horror (2010), to be published in 2022. As an experimental filmmaker, his works have been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, Filmhuis Cavia (Amsterdam), Studio 44 (Stockholm), La lumière collective (Montréal), The BWA Katowice Museum (Poland), The Microscope Gallery, The National Film Theatre (UK), The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, LA Filmforum (Los Angeles), The New Arts Lab, The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Rice Museum, The Oberhausen Film Festival, Undercurrent, Experimental Response Cinema and elsewhere.

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