German director Fritz Lang famously used the manhunt for a serial killer as a springboard to explore the life of an entire city in 1931’s M. Lang takes a similar tack with 1956’s While The City Sleeps, which has just been released via Warner’s essential DVD-on-demand Warner Archive division after being unavailable for years. Lang’s hardboiled, deeply cynical melodrama posits the newsroom of a great newspaper as the heartbeat that keeps cities alive. Without the furious exertion of the newsroom, with its Sisyphean demands and nonexistent wages, the city would simply die, or at least cease to function properly. Sleeps has the alternately exhausted and rat-a-tat rhythms of newsrooms where conversation is a blood sport and anyone who isn’t comatose at the end of the day clearly isn’t working hard enough, and will be punished with twice as much work the next day.
Dana Andrews anchors the film as a hotshot reporter who’s graduated to cushy positions delivering news on television and writing Pulitzer-winning novels without ever leaving the newsroom behind. Newsprint is in Andrews’ blood, so when a serial murderer known as The Lipstick Killer starts plaguing the city, Andrews springs into action on behalf of a crusty old pal (Thomas Mitchell, best known for playing the absentminded uncle in It’s A Wonderful Life) so his friend can score a promotion for tracking down the killer. In a deliciously redundant move, While The City Sleeps features the eternally foppish George Sanders and the even more foppish Vincent Price as a scheming newswire editor and the paper’s reviled new owner, respectively.
From its title to the screaming strings that accompany the opening credits, While The City Sleeps benefits from lusty vulgarity. The film’s serial killer clearly majored in Eye-Bugging Studies at the Peter Lorre Academy Of Conspicuous Villains, and he’s strangely at home in the shadowy nighttime world Lang and screenwriter Casey Robinson populate with schemers, creeps, and women of easy virtue. Everyone has a price and an angle. Nothing is sacred, especially the newspaper business. In Lang’s brutally unsentimental, quick-witted, wildly entertaining valentine to the old-school newspaperman and the lost world he inhabited, the hunt for a deranged killer isn’t a mere matter of life and death. It’s more important than that: It’s newspaper business.
Released the following year, Lang’s Beyond A Reasonable Doubt could almost double as a sequel to While The City Sleeps if the tones weren’t so divergent. Doubt again finds Andrews playing a hard-driving young journalist with a sideline in writing books. Andrews’ latest book idea promises to make his career or kill him: With the help of his overly trusting publisher, Andrews frames himself for murder so he can climactically reveal his innocence and expose the inherent flaws in the idea of capital punishment. Andrews’ condition grows even more perilous when his publisher dies in a narratively convenient car crash.
City again finds Andrews typecast as a dogged newshound, only this time, his mind isn’t as sharp and his patter isn’t as funny. The same holds true of the film, which comes alive during the isolated moments when it explores the violent, perilous city outside, but falls flat when attending to the demands of a gimmicky plot that foreshadows the premise for the little-loved Kevin Spacey vehicle The Life Of David Gale. Beyond A Reasonable Doubt boasts a final twist worthy of a Fritz Lang noir, but it takes its sweet, meandering time getting there. Any half-decent newspaperman will tell you time is a commodity never to be wasted.