Lang: While the City Sleeps (1956)

While Fritz Lang would direct into the 1960s, he released his last two film noirs in 1956 – While the City Sleeps, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Of those two, While the City Sleeps feels like the bookend to his noir career, mirroring M, his first sound film, in its depiction of a serial killer terrorising a city at large. In this case, however, the serial killer has been mediated through the history of noir, making for a very different kind of crime narrative. We open, with a short scene before the credits, as this killer, played John Drew Barrymore, targets his first victim, a woman who lives alone in a New York apartment complex. From there, Lang takes us into an extravagant story that’s a clear forerunner of Psycho, released three years later, but that also anticipates, more distantly, the flamboyant maximalism of the 90s erotic thriller.

One of the most surprising elements of this story, which is penned by Casey Robinson, and based on Charles Einstein’s novel The Bloody Spur, is that it doesn’t unfold as a police procedural. Rather, and like Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, While the City Sleeps is a media drama, revolving around the way in which a prominent news conglomerate deals with this emergent serial killer. The title of the film thus has two meanings – both serial killers and journalists work into the wee small hours of the morning – while gesturing towards the serial killer as a new kind of celebrity, with a particularly intimate relationship with mass media. Here, as in many historical cases, the media gives him his nickname – the “Lipstick Killer,” since his first victim is found next to a cryptic message scrawled on her wall with her lipstick.

The Lipstick Killer also forms the backdrop for a media dynasty drama that unfolds over the course of the film. In the first act, we meet Amos Kyne, played by Robert Warwick, a media baron whose employees include newspaper chief Jon Day Griffith, played by Thomas Mitchell, wire-service chief Mark Loving, played by George Sanders, television chief Harry Kritzer, played by James Craig, and television anchor Edward Mobley, played by Dana Andrews. However, we meet Amos on his deathbed, where he laments the future of the company, which he is bequeathing to his son, the irresponsible Walter Kyne, played by Vincent Price.

The Lipstick Killer emerges at the very moment that Amos Kyne hands the company over to his son Walter, and draws out a schism within the different media branches of the company itself. Amos dies halfway through a speech about “the responsibility of the free press to the people,” in the midst of a television broadcast about the Lipstick Killer, while his company is on the verge of brokering a deal with a Midwestern television company. In other words, the Lipstick Killer emerges at the juncture between print media and television media, gesturing towards the serial killer as a figure who demands a new and convergent media seriality to capture the full scope of his crimes – and to properly communicate his agenda to the public.

This intimate relation between serial media and serial killers is only intensified by Walter’s first act as leader – to make the chiefs of print, wire and television compete to catch the Lipstick Killer. Whoever finds the killer, Walter promises, will be given the new role of Executive Director. The urgency of catching the killer collapses into the urgency of securing a story. This suffuses the film with the intensified real time that characterised so much late noir, which was fixated with new ways to fuse the cities on screen with the city outside and thereby compete with the “live” experience of television. Lang’s film opens with an intertitle that situates us in “New York, right now,” as if to remind us that movie-going, along with serial killing and journalism, is another activity that occurs deep into the night, while the city sleeps.

Each of these media chiefs has a different strategy for finding the killer, but all of them depend, in some way, upon Edward Mobley, who as television anchor is the protagonist of the film. It’s Edward who makes the link between the first and second murder, names the perpetrator as the Lipstick Killer, and outlines his profile on television. He also addresses the killer directly, opening up a dialogue that feels eerily prescient of the classic serial killers of the 70s and 80s: “I am going to say a few things to the killer, face to face.” By contrast, the two chiefs in charge of wire and print are hopelessly lost – they have some initiative, but no real know-how, and seem especially incapable of conceptualising this killer in serial terms. Only a convergence of print and television, the film suggests, can fully grasp this new seriality.

Lang thus turns the seriality of the killer, rather than his identity, into the main source of horror. Unlike the media team, we know the killer’s appearance from the outset, and get to follow him around as he goes about his daily routine. Part of the reason the film isn’t a police procedural is that this figure seems to defy regular procedure, conforming to many tropes of insanity, to be sure, but still exuding an essentially unknowable quality that makes him fascinating to watch half a century later. That’s not to say there are no police either, but that we don’t see much in the way of normal police work, as it was understood by Hollywood at the time. In lieu of interviews, tracking and trailing, or work out in the field, we see early glimpses of criminology and crime scene analysis – familiar motifs in the present, but quite unnerving and uncanny against noir backdrops normally reserved for traditional investigation.

No surprise, perhaps, that the film can’t come up with more than a grab-bag of reasons – adoption, divorce, homosexuality – to explain the phenomenon of the serial killer, who is ultimately defined negatively, as an aporia at the heart of the nuclear family, an absence that can’t be fully conceptualised. Yet Lang’s filmis more compelling as a work of spatial criminology than it is as a work of psychological criminology – in its forensix fixation on those places where the city sleeps, and leaves itself vulnerable to serial crime. We hear these spaces before we see them – or, rather, we don’t hear them, since the Lipstick Killer leaves a preternatural silence in his wake, a silence that harkens back to the off-screen silence of M, Lang’s other great serial killer. In M, the silences were exacerbated by the newness of sound – M’s trademark whistle is one of the first great cinematic sounds – but Lang manages to recapture the freshness of that silence here. Sound feels as uncannily vivid here as it did in the early 30s, poising us on the brink of a great hush that the film can never properly process.

This silence corresponds to a new terror that awaits urban women between the street and their apartment doors –the lobbies, stairwells and elevators of apartment complexes. In an older kind of noir, these areas were more resolutely designated as private, but here they speak to a collapse of public and private spheres, bringing the street that little bit closer to personal space. These vestibular spaces are also the most stylistically extravagant in the film, abstracting the angular perspectives of expressionism, and the contorted sightlines of noir, into the gaze of the serial killer, which thereby becomes a kind of apotheosis of Lang’s own evolution as a director. Like Lang’s own camera, the serial killer registers a new blurring of public and private spaces, and a new capability to insinuate public space into private space.

The serial killer thus reflects a new prescience of blind spots in the urban fabric – places that police surveillance can’t penetrate or even reconstruct. The very fact that we see the Lipstick Killer so frequently and so frankly indicates that his power doesn’t lie in being a discrete figure, but an interstitial potential that occupies the spaces between other people, just as he becomes synonymous with the syntax of Lang’s own film. While we “see” the killer, we only see him in the same way we can “see” the cut, as a negative capability that just reiterates his social invisibility – especially to other men, and to the male gaze that noir typically courted. It makes sense that a janitor is the first suspect, since this is the closest the film can come to understanding this interstitial figure in conventional space and time, both of which break down over the course of the Lipstick Killer’s reign. The labyrinths of an older noir cityscape are now internalised, sandwiched between street and door, reconfigured around public-private spaces, rather than the more classically claustrophobic privacy of 1940s crime films.  

In other words, While the City Sleeps is prescient that the serial killer represents a new kind of networked threat, which means that it requires a networked effort to catch him. In response, Lang creates ab ensemble drama that revolves around a serial killer – an ensemble that pits itself against a serial killer – full of side deals, secret relationships, and relationships that are open secrets. The austerity of the Lipstick Killer’s crimes are offset by this dense web of alliances, a rich tapestry of double, triple and even quadruple-crossing that suffuses every corner of the dialogue with gossip, innuendo and suggestion. All these exchanges come back to one open secret – that a certain amount of networked promiscuity is inevitable, and even necessary, in the media sphere, especially when the media takes a serial killer as its target. To catch a serial killer, this media ensemble has to serialise its own desire by promiscuously relaying, remediating and reconfiguring it across as many complex combinations as possible.

As a result, Lang’s film is almost a screwball comedy at times, full of overlapping networks of conversations and characters talking at cross-purposes, sometimes deliberately and sometimes accidentally. As in the promiscuous exchanges between the media and police , the script is full of disclosures that aren’t quite on or off the record, giving the characters enormous latitude to relax into jokes about infidelity, homosexuality and polyamoury. At moments, I was even reminded of media sitcoms in the cruisey contiguity between characters, as well as a certain concession, and a certain give-and-take, in the romantic and sexual boundaries, which are remarkably fluid and provisional for a film of this time. All this cruising crystallises around Mildred Donner, a star writer, played by Ida Lupino, who’s billed as a cameo, but for that very reason feels like the centre of this decentred world, channelling the film’s own writer as the most effortless and awry networker, the film’s charismatic core.

This networked quality also produces a screwball sense of movement, especially in the media headquarters, where people are continually moving from one communicative conduit to the next in redundant and absurd ways. Either they’re phoning people who are only a few feet away, or they’re opening and closing a plethora of unnecessary doors, evoking a workplace that is itself deliberately over-mediated – channelled through endless phones, doors and windows when everyone could just be meeting and working in one big room. Lang’s camera follows suit, dancing from point to point in this ludicrously compartmentalised workplace, as if embodying this relentless need to self-mediate, or overmediate, in the face of a serial killer. 

It’s also hard to make out where any of these characters live, since they’re always slipping in and out of each others’ homes, routines and personal space. Some of them live in the same apartment complex, but even that is unclear, since Lang tends to refrain from the establishing-shots that might differentiate the different dwellings. As a result, there’s no stable association between any one journalist and any one domestic space – all spaces are either professional or public, which intensifies their competitive drive to the catch the killer, but also their shared precarity in the face of the killer. This makes it genuinely impossible to predict who he will target next, but also imbues his crime scenes with an additional eeriness, since it’s only here that we ever see a character (a victim) firmly (and literally) embedded in a domestic space. You might say the Lipstick Killer stands in for the director, linking characters and spaces, and anticipating the spatial mastery that shrouded the killers of the 60s and 70s – the way they exuded an almost supernatural ability to fit urban space to their every whim.

Like David Fincher’s Zodiac fifty years later, then, While the City Sleeps suggests that critical distance isn’t enough to catch a serial killer. Instead, you have to become a part of their network, draw them into your own network, nail them at the fuzzy point where public and private space collide. Journalism here means choreographing this precarious zone between public and private – starting with Mobley, who decides to publish his wedding announcement and a damning profile of the Lipstick Killer, side by side, on the same day, on the front page of the newspaper. He hopes this will lure the killer into targeting him, lure the killer into his network – but he equally hopes that by orchestrating this proximity via the newspaper he will be able to retain some control over this vertiginous collapse of his public and personal lives.

Even more radically, Lang refuses to exempt his own film from this outlook, splintering and fragmenting the narrative until it’s hard for the audience to comprehensively grasp how the case is proceeding. In one of the most remarkable scenes, Mobley’s fiancée, Nancy Liggett, played by Sally Forrest (who also works in the newsroom, as Loving’s secretary) confuses the Lipstick Killer for Mobley, when he arrives at her door. When she realises her mistake, she calls for help out the window. Lang’s camera then pans across the street, following her perspective, but ends with a movie house advertising a film starring “Dana Andrews.” We can’t see the name of the film – just Andrews’ name on the billboard, which floats, devoid of referent, collapsing diegetic and extra-diegetic space in the same way that Mobley collapses public and private space, bleeding the world of the film back into the world of the audience. 

This leads on to the film’s denouement – a  stunning chase in the subway, a literal underground network, and yet this space seems curiously impotent for visualising the networked gaze of the serial killer himself. He slips into the elusive gap between a departing train and the tunnel walls – the vanishing point of the platform, where the network ceases to be legible for the regular commuter – and Mobley never quite catches up with him. To be sure, they dodge and weave around various trains, and Mobley eventually forces him up a manhole, in an ascent sequence that plays like a late echo of Metropolis. But in the very process of negotiating this final network, the Lipstick Killer is absorbed back into it, dispersed amongst the shadowy public-private spaces of the film, leaving nothing but an empty shell by the time that Mobley apprehends him, in a deliberately anticlimactic concluding showdown.

The last last note of the film is Mobley’s inability to extricate himself from those networks the serial killer momentarily embodied – even on his honeymoon, and even in Florida. We end with an epilogue in his Miami suite, where he only learns that he has been promoted from a local newspaper. He and Nancy then, prepare to put the newspaper aside, and consummate their marriage, when the phone rings, presumably with a missive from Walter Kyne. Mobley comically puts his hat over the receiver, but this is still the final shot of the film  – the phone still ringing, part of a newly networked potential that has been forestalled but not foreclosed.  

About Billy Stevenson (694 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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