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The Fatal Vision of Fritz Lang

Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956)

Watch programmer Dave Kehr and critic Farran Smith Nehme discuss the unique qualities Raoul Walsh brought to Hollywood genre pictures and you may come away with the impression that the three films Walsh directed in our new Criterion Channel program spotlighting the performances of actress-turned-director Ida Lupino are among the strongest of the thirteen features. That impression would be correct. But among the many others not to be missed is Fritz Lang’s urban noir While the City Sleeps (1956), which also screens tomorrow as the second half of the double bill that opens the Melbourne Cinémathèque series More Than Night: The Fatal Vision of Fritz Lang.

Lupino is not the star of While the City Sleeps; she’s one of ten. She plays a newspaper reporter persuaded by the head of a wire service (George Sanders) to warm up to a television news anchorman (Dana Andrews) in order to extract information that might lead to the identity of the Lipstick Killer (John Drew Barrymore) who has been terrorizing the city.

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,” wrote Nathan Rabin at the A.V. Club in 2011. “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.”

Rabin’s mention of Lorre is, of course, a direct nod to Lang’s M (1931), and as Kehr wrote in the Chicago Reader in 2010, Sleeps is “a cynical twist” on M in that “the sex killer becomes the most sympathetic character in the film, as Lang reserves his venom for the desperately competitive reporters.” In 2004, the late Stanley Kauffmann suggested that none other than Bertolt Brecht may have “contributed privately to Lorre’s basic concept of the murderer as a scurrying, furry little animal, and to the wretch’s outburst when he is brought before the court of criminals.”

M is the first half of tomorrow’s double bill in Melbourne. On May 11, the Cinémathèque will pair Lang’s Man Hunt (1941), in which Walter Pidgeon plays a big-game hunter who decides to take a shot at Adolf Hitler, with Cloak and Dagger (1946), starring Gary Cooper as an American nuclear physicist recruited to find out how close the Nazis might be to making their own atom bomb. The series wraps on May 18 with Spies, Lang’s 1928 silent espionage thriller, and Ministry of Fear (1941), an adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel about a Brit (Ray Milland) inadvertently drawn into an international spy ring. “It’s a nightmare film, pure and simple,” wrote Glenn Kenny in 2013.

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