Posted by David Kalat on March 1, 2014
Last week’s post on Jean Renoir’s The Elusive Corporal brought to light a pocket of fans of Fritz Lang’sWhile the City Sleeps—and so in honor of that long-suffering cohort, this week I figured I’d properly pay tribute to one of Lang’s unsung classics.
One of the reasons that While the City Sleeps doesn’t get its due has less to do with its actual quality than it does with the sprawling nature of Lang’s absurdly prolific career. He started off as one of the brand names in German silent cinema, and capped that off with a pair of ground-breaking experiments in early talkie cinema, before emigrating to the US and starting over in Hollywood—where he discarded the stylistic panache of his German films in favor of a stripped down aesthetic. He went from being an icon of German film to being a journeyman director of American genre films—Westerns, film noir, wartime thrillers. Then he abruptly quit Hollywood, burned all his professional bridges, and went back to Germany to make some nostalgic updates of his silent films… it’s hard to summarize all that succinctly.
And While the City Sleeps sits awkwardly within that history—it isn’t his last Hollywood film, it’s his next-to-last. It may seem elegiac and backward-looking, but he made three more films after it—four, if you countThe Indian Tomb films separately.
Furthermore, Lang’s Hollywood work coincided with the so-called “Golden Age,” when most stars were engaged to specific studios in long-term contracts. Many directors had the advantage within this system to isolate a given performer or groups of performers with whom they had a good working relationship and common creative vision. But Lang bounced around from studio to studio, never staying anywhere long enough to settle into that kind of relationship with any of his stars.
While the City Sleeps has one of the most impressive casts of any of Lang’s American films—and each of these storied performers are working at the top of their game here: Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Howard Duff… and they in turn are backed up by some outstanding supporting players like Rhonda Fleming, James Craig, John Drew Barrymore…
And part of what makes this film sing is the way that Casey Robinson’s screenplay gives such quirky, realistic life to each of these characters. There’s a tendency, even in the best written and best acted films, to let the dialog serve a utilitarian function—the words are meant to convey exposition, or backstory, or character details. In real life, people talk in messy ways, without regard to whether they’re “in character.”
Take for example Sally Forrest’s character: a sweet, virginal All-American girl who puts up with the pervy advances of her boss, George Sanders, while dating his co-worker Dana Andrews. She’s the Girl Next Door, as it were. And what are her first words on screen? “Shut your obscene face!” And she says this, smiling, to her boyfriend Dana Andrews while she’s at work. I honestly can’t imagine any other film that would introduce a character in this fashion, and then expect the audience to accept her as a sweet and virtuous heroine whose relationship with the obscene-face man is something to root for.