Fritz Lang’s American career ended at RKO, with While the City Sleeps and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, both released in 1956 and both starring Dana Andrews. Although neither film can be considered “prime Lang,” they do show a director still obsessed with the dangers of kangaroo courts and overzealous prosecutors. The films both received out-of-left-field Blu-ray upgrades from Warner Archive in March.
While the City Sleeps hit theaters in May 1956. This is a combination newspaper-crime drama, where two newspaper executives – wire editor Mark Loving (George Sanders) and newspaper editor Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) compete to find a serial killer dubbed the “Lipstick Killer” (John Drew Barrymore) to get a top position at their paper. Meanwhile, a third executive, Harry Ktrizer (James Craig) tries to leverage his affair with the boss’ wife to get the promotion.
Griffith enlists Edward Mobley (Andrews) to help find the killer, even though he has tried to leave the newspaper business to write a book. But, like all newspapermen who want to leave the job in the movies, Mobley is dragged back in. He becomes fascinated by the case and agrees to work his police sources to help solve it.
That just scratches the surface of everything going on in this 99-minute movie. The many other relationships tangential to the main “Lipstick Killer” case would make for great detours in TV episodes, but feel like a movie script (by Now, Voyager‘s Craig Robinson) dragging its heels. Lang might have wanted the murders to be a Hitchcockian McGuffin, but it is much more interesting than the romantic relationships between breaks in the case.
However, the film is redeemed by its incredible cast and Lang’s direction. You can’t really complain about a film with a credits sequence mentioning the names of George Sanders, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, James Craig, Thomas Mitchell and Ida Lupino. Everyone seems to be relishing the chance to work with Fritz Lang.
But the biggest revelation of the film is John Drew Barrymore. Best known today as Drew Barrymore’s dad, he gives a great performance as the killer. It’s a shame there are too many other events crammed into the script that take us away from learning more about the killer’s psyche. What we do get shows a film ahead of its time in that regard.
Four months after While The City Sleeps, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt hit theaters. This turned out to be Lang’s last American film. Unfortunately, it is a movie for Lang devotees only. The plot is completely preposterous – newspaper columnist Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) hates the idea of capital punishment so much that he and soon-to-be son-in-law Tom (Dana Andrews) try to prove an innocent man can wind up on death row. Through a series of bizarre circumstances, Tom is convicted.
There are reasons to stick around for all 80 minutes, just to see a shocking twist ending. However, it was clearly made on the cheap and there aren’t any standout performances. Joan Fontaine stars as Spencer’s daughter and Tom’s fiancee and is fine though.
I would love to be in the room when Warner Archive’s staff decides what to release on Blu-ray because getting these before Rancho Notorious or Fury is just as preposterous as Beyond A Reasonable Doubt‘s plot.
Both films look amazing considering their age and obscurity, and WAC has preserved their unique 2.0:1 “Superscope” ratio. Both discs include just the trailers.
These two films could have easily been released on a single Blu-ray together. They are a combined 179 minutes long, which can easily fit on one dual-layer disc.
Both films show a director still devoted to the same subjects that made his early films tick, but they also show a director losing his edge late in his career. The same man who made M, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Fury and The Big Heat is clearly still there, but his budget and scripts are not there to match him.
If you love newspaper dramas, all-star casts and serial killer movies, While The City Sleeps is worth checking out. However, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is one you could hold off on, unless you absolutely must see every film Fritz Lang made.
Thanks to Warner Archive for providing these discs to review!