German director Fritz Lang made a name for himself creating masterful, impressionistic works of German cinema with movies like 1927’s “Metropolis” and 1931’s “M,” the latter being a precursor to the genre known as Film Noir, which Lang is considered a master of. In 1936 Lang immigrated to America where he began a 20-year career in Hollywood that came to an end in 1956 with the RKO releases of “While the City Sleeps” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.” In addition to being Lang’s final works for Hollywood (though not his last films as a director), both films also happen to share Dana Andrews as their star, and both have had their blu-ray debuts recently from Warner Archive.
“While The City Sleeps” is often billed as a Film Noir, but I don’t really quite think it fits the bill. What “While The City Sleeps” actually is, is a very fine crime mystery wrapped up in being a “newspaper procedural.” The film takes place in New York City, centered around a newspaper conglomerate that owns one of the major papers in the city, as well as a TV news program that airs twice daily, plus a wire service used by thousands of newspapers across the country. Andrews stars as the paper’s most celebrated reporter, who has won a Pulitzer and anchors the group’s TV broadcasts.
A young woman has been murdered, the killer wrote on the wall of his victim’s apartment “Ask Mother” in lipstick. The old man in charge of the conglomerate, who is in ailing health, calls in Andrews and the other heads of his news empire and tells them he wants this to be a sensational story and to slap “Lipstick Killer” on the front page in giant letters. Mere moments after giving this decree, the old man dies and is replaced by his son. His son, who always had something of a disdain for his father, gives the decree that he wants the newsgroup to catch the killer. Promising a promotion to whichever head of the three main divisions—print, wire, and photo—can pull it off first.
“While The City Sleeps” has a most impressive cast. Andrews is supported by George Sanders, Ronda Fleming, Thomas Mitchell, Ida Lupino, and Vincent Price—in what must be one of the rare films he made WITHOUT his signature mustache. “While The City Sleeps” is a great little movie. Completely engaging from start to finish, “While The City Sleeps” is worth seeking out—especially if you want to see Vincent Price practice his golf putting in shorts and black socks!
From the same year is the quick, 80-minute Noir-ish “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” which is a greatly pessimistic film that also stars Andrews. The film almost starts to seem like it’s going to be a companion piece to “While The City Sleeps,” but in the end, it isn’t quite that. Joan Fontaine stars with Andrews in “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” which has Andrews playing a novelist whose soon to be father-in-law is a publisher who comes ups with a scheme to expose injustice in Capital Punishment.
The two plan to frame Andrews for a murder, using only circumstantial evidence that they document the placing of to show how unreliable it can be for a harsh sentence. This film is OK, for me I was left feeling rather mixed on it. There were one too many plot holes and from about 10 minutes in the film’s main conceit was telegraphed to me in GIANT LETTERS. It’s a finely made film, but just a bit contrived for my tastes. It has the makings of a fine noir, but there’s just one too many twists and turns in the plot that seem to come out of left field for the only purpose of twisting things around to get a reaction out of the audience.
Both “While The City Sleeps” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” come to blu-ray with brand new 1080p transfers from Warner Archive, framed in their original “Superscope” exhibition of an aspect ratio of 2:00.1—you’ll see some small letterboxing happening on your screen when you watch the film. Both films look fantastic, beautiful, sharp, defined black and white. Both films also feature a clear DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack, and each film has its respective trailer included.
Though I only really cared for one of these films, Lang completists will be thrilled to have his final two American films on blu-ray for the first time. I’d give “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” a rental first, but I’d give a full “nab it as a blind buy” recommendation to “While The City Sleeps.” Warner Archive has done another fine job, as they always do, and it’s nice to see more and more classic Hollywood titles come out in HD. See you next week.