While the City Sleeps (1956)

7 07 2009

It seems that the longer Fritz Lang stayed in America, the more his personality was suppressed. By this point in his career, all signs of expressionistic photography are completely gone, vanished seemingly into thin air. While his stylistic trademarks may have been censored, I can’t help but think that, in this particular case, it probably helped out his film. This effort, his last “successful” American production, gives off a false sense of aesthetic normality. This is why it all the more bizarre and fascinating to watch something brutal and even a bit sad, unfold.

The absence of Lang’s usual sensibility is picked up by a superb cast, including Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Howard Duff, and Thomas Mitchell. There’s something very personal inside all of these actors that they manage to express in nearly every film I’ve seen in them. Thomas Mitchell is a perfect example. His character is an alcoholic, much like his character in Stagecoach, who avoids the responsibilities of a serious job (newspaper editor…or some similar position that’s never really clarified) in favor of the bottle. In Ford’s film, this dichotomy between maturity and responsibility is clearly intended to be some sort of joke. The difference is less obvious and Lang’s film and as a result, feels less forced and more natural.

Ida Lupino’s performance here seems like a slight exaggeration of her usual stock roles. She plays a loose, seductive woman who, had shown up for an earlier Lang film, would surely be considered a femme fatale. Her own modifications (or perhaps deconstruction?) of this character type isn’t nearly as evident as it is in a film like say, The Hit, but it doesn’t seem to fall into the clichés of the character’s type. Unlike the usual noir vixen, her role in the grand scheme of the narrative is subtle, hardly noticeable.

Lupino is sent to seduce Dana Andrews’ character. This task is entirely too easy as Lang establishes early on that the two share a physical attraction. It probably doesn’t hurt that Andrews is fairly intoxicated. The only pitfall in this setup comes from the fact that Andrews just announced his engagement, to another women. His “fooling around” with Lupino upsets his wife for a good fifteen minutes of the picture, but ultimately this rather mild meeting yields no important dramatic implications. If I haven’t made it clear at this point, I like the fact that this small side story doesn’t go anywhere. It creates a depth to Lang’s world, a world usually filled with fast-talking men and manipulative women. They’re not absent here, but they are presented in a far more convincing light.

I haven’t even gotten around to the fact that, like Lang’s previous film, The Big Heat, there is a cynical yet somehow innocent sense of humor that runs under the conventional proceedings of the genre. The struggle that takes place between the killer and a would-be victim is shot not with fancy camera angles or loud, dramatic music but from a distance with no score at all. While it might be a little anti-humanistic to depict an attempted murder is such a humor way, it certainly doesn’t lose any realism points. Maybe Lang didn’t want deadpan comedy evoked from this sequence, but I feel as though he got it, intentional or not.

Dana Andrews’ witty dialogue, on the other hand, is almost entirely intentional. It’s another typical noir element (though again, I’m not sure I really consider this “noir” to begin with) but there’s something in his delivery that eludes to a more profound element. His character, in all honesty, just seems tired. Maybe this isn’t a remarkable discover of Andrews’ acting but needless to say, he is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. This perfectly describes the film as a whole. It’s not Lang at his most innovative, but it is Lang at his most entertaining.

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2 responses

7 07 2009
gaston monescu

I think Lang’s suppression of style was his own doing, both this and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt were made with impeccable anonymity. It is something he had been practicing for about a decade, since the late 40s or so, and it is my favorite “Lang period”. Of course, he goes back to his German-isms when he goes back to Germany for the Indian films and the last Mabuse.
Many fanatics dislike the fact that Lang threw away his own style, but to me it brings out a weird and sardonic flavor from the director, not to mention a sense of maturity.

30 06 2010
Ryan

Interesting post, I thought the chase sequence of John Drew Barrymore’s killer near the end was classic Lang, expertly handled tension with excellent use of sound and the capture of the killer from the drain cover is reminiscent of Peter Lorre in “M”. I see it’s coming out on DVD (finally!) in July 2010 in the UK, I look forward to reviewing it all these years later.

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