Fritz Lang was a perpetually political filmmaker. The darkness of his worldview was evident in his most famous masterpieces, Metropolis, a dystopic vision of a future now behind us, and M, where a paedophile is reviled by a court of criminals. His films are frequently alive with the eponymous emotion of one of his finest works, 1936's Fury, where Spencer Tracy's innocent seeks revenge on the townspeople who tried to burn him alive. The bold black-and-white of these films seems to shine more definitely than most, crisply capturing some of the most vibrant interactions and discussions ever filmed. As much as there's a distinctive Lang style, there's a distinctive Lang mood to match it.
Austin and Tom's game is of the superior snob proving his superiority over the working class police force, although my initial criticism that their fun little plot might be a little distracting for the genuine investigation comes a bit - alright, a lot unstuck with the film's sensationalist twist. The film is too keen on showing off its own brains - the dialogue is predominantly expositional, pre-empting questions that no one was asking yet. Joan Fontaine, awkwardly crunching her shoulders in flowery dresses, seems thrown in to guarantee our continued investment in Tom and his dangerous game. But her lingering presence also suggests the greater dramatic reverberations, which culminate in an inevitably fiery twist of fate from which the film abandons cool social criticism and heads down the path of consternated drama. The final twist not only gives Dana Andrews the cherished chance to gurn like a maniac, but it finalises a regretful negation of the intriguing social commentary which ran for the first half.
The Beast of Yucca Flats (warning: ludicrously wonderful) and Blood Feast (warning: gruesomely terrible effects), this opening sequence could almost be a precursor - a bathroom framed with a narrow doorway, and the scrawled message of 'Ask Mother' left behind!) Though the film's poster sells it as another sensationalist killer thriller, the film creates a deliberately placid narrative where the murderous exploits of the 'Lipstick Killer' are of as much interest as the machinations of a media corporation's internal competition for the post of executive director. Lang maximises the possibilities for deep compositions within the budget constraints and square 2:1 ratio, crafting a more fully realised set of complex spaces than the boxed studio feel of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt.
|Deep space as Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) appears at the rear|
|Killer ≠ seducer|
None of its threads are ever fully realised, but While the City Sleeps plays with other ideas that didn't come into vogue until the following decade - the ruthless instincts newly manifest in females, the destructive relationship between media and the law. Though as a sealed off product While the City Sleeps looks minute and basic, it proves itself a key film in the Lang canon, a devastatingly pessimistic critique of American values. As a two-fer, Lang's final Hollywood films act a summary of his experiences in the country, a place he seemed to view as more intrinsically rotten than the homeland he fled during the rise of Nazis.