April 2, 2018
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Vincent Price, John Barrymore Jr.
Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps was the first movie I ever saw by a director in Andrew Sarris’ Pantheon who wasn’t named John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, though Lang was getting along by 1956, and in fact made only one subsequent American movie. That would be the same year’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which Warner Archive is concurrently releasing on Blu-ray as well — though I’ve never liked it as much as Sleeps by a long shot, even if it’s much preferable to the somewhat refashioned Michael Douglas-Amber Tamblyn remake that deservedly went direct to video. Out of a cannon.
I first caught the Sleeps trailer right after I’d turned 9 and knew that this was a movie for me: A greasy serial killer (John Barrymore Jr.) strangles women in their New York apartments and leaves taunting clues after his crime, the most revealing of which is his writing of “Ask Mother” on the wall of the first victim we see. Because I was visiting my grandparents at the time, it was easier to feign it 400 Blows or Day for Night flashback style that I was running off to catch a kiddie matinee — when, in fact, the bill was Sleeps and a British RKO ‘B’ (The Brain Machine), which also looked and sounded essential formative years material.
Sleep was a new kind of movie for me, and after this, Disney kids’ stuff like, say, The Littlest Outlaw just wasn’t going to cut it. Lang’s wall-to-wall tawdriness also served as my first newspaper movie, pretty sure — and even more of one than it was a serial killer melodrama because there’s still 15 or so minutes of narrative to go after the killer is caught. As my first look at big-city journalism (aside from watching Walter Winchell bark on TV), I was impressed by how much everyone in the picture drank. There’s even a drunk scene here by real-life alcoholic lead Dana Andrews to compound the 80-proof ambience, though this is subtext I wouldn’t have appreciated at the time.
Even at a reasonable 99 minutes, Sleeps gets ground down by a clunky boilerplate romance between Pulitzer-winning print newshound/TV commentator Andrews and co-worker Sally Forrest — though it isn’t exactly without interest that he basically would end up using his pert girlfriend as bait for the killer. But at its best, this is a fitfully entertaining portrayal of corporate backstabbing in the kind of burgeoning media complex that gets bonus points for anticipating today’s conglomerates — one of multiple components that made Lang’s cheapie with name (sometimes fading-name) cast a little ahead of it time.
Another of these is the narrative’s prevailing luridness despite a screenplay by the normally tasteful Casey Robinson (here adapting a Charles Einstein novel) — with blatant adultery, imbibings and mildly graphic killings that would be far more common just a couple years later on screen yet here results in a surprisingly randy movie for 1956. Another is its grabber of an extended pre-credits sequence, which was something still fairly rare in the days when Robert Aldrich (whose early films almost always had them) had only a handful of big-screen credits to his name. There’s also a mild hint that broadcast news might be the division that inherited the Earth when it came to journalistic corporate bucks. And though it opened in May 1956 — in the same five-day period that also saw the launches of The Searchers and The Man Who Knew Too Much; you think movies are better today? — someone here was topically savvy enough to make Barrymore’s hood-ish killer resemble Elvis (though Gene Vincent would be an even closer comparison).
So here’s the deal. When the conglomerate’s aged founder dies — his makeshift hospital bed is actually in the office just yards from reporters’ typewriters and Andrews’ broadcast studio — his useless son (Vincent Price, perfect casting) has to take a few hours away from his polo ponies and actually try to run the joint. His solution is to create a new top-dog position and set up a cutthroat competition to get it; the candidates are an old-school print type played by Thomas Mitchell with more ink in his veins than even the internal booze that flowed through his tributaries in Stagecoach); wire service chief George Sanders; and photographer James Craig, who gets kind of sweaty every time he sees Rhonda Fleming (so did my dad). She plays Price’s wife, and it turns out the two are having an affair, even though Craig and Price are nominal buddies. It doesn’t on the face of it sound like a durable long-term strategy with which to land the gig.
Less of a factor here in these machinations is Andrews, who’s more preoccupied with catching the killer with the aid of an old cop buddy (Howard Duff) and also getting Forrest into the sack — the latter a tough order in ’50s Hollywood (the movie wasn’t that advanced). This situation is a point of consternation with Ida Lupino (she plays what newspaper pics used to call a “sob sister’), who comes off as not just enamored with Andrews but so man-hungry that you can almost imagine her taking up with Barrymore were he something more than a drugstore delivery boy who lives at home with … well, mother.
Too many of the scenes are flat, and the office settings are closer to Ed Wood than Trump Enterprises in their drabness, but every once in a while Lang comes up with a shot or full scene that crackles. The opening set-up is very punchy, and there’s a visual that I never forgot from my childhood: Fleming doing stretching exercises behind an opaque portable barrier that suggests a nude state — and then continuing the process while standing in a circle of sand that’s a) either supposed to give her bare feet the feel of the beach; or b) serve as a practice sand trap for Price’s indoor golf putting (you sense that out on the links, most of his Titleists likely end up in one).
The printing source here seems uneven, which means that Sleeps in high-def isn’t as snappy-looking as other Warner Archive Blu-rays, though it’s at minimum a cut above the old Image laserdisc, Warner DVD and even (if memory serves) a 35mm print I ran at the AFI Theater. To compound the casting amusements here, Barrymore’s not quite doddering mother (who dressed him as a girl during childhood) is played by D.W. Griffith star Mae Marsh, who had a long post-silent career in small roles for John Ford (a lot) and others. The segue from The Birth of a Nation to being cast as the mother of a psychopathic Elvis knockoff in the ’50s isn’t one I’d have predicted — but then, who would have anticipated Sylvia Sidney ending up with Tim Burton for Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks!, ack! ack!?