May 7, 2018

On Blu-ray: Friz Lang Does Noir in While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

Director Fritz Lang had an astounding career. Influential, enduring, and inventive, he was able to adapt from silents to talkies and then from European to Hollywood filmmaking while keep his own unique style. I recently had the chance to watch two crime noir titles from late in his career: While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both 1956), both of which are available now on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

It can be difficult to focus on the twists and turns of While the City Sleeps (1956) because of its astounding cast. I found myself spending most of the running time in disbelief that Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, and Ida Lupino all somehow ended up together in a movie. It has the effect of an explosion of personalities. They’re all so charismatic and there are only 99 minutes to cover their various story lines, and so it is incredible that the final result is as entertaining and well balanced as it is.

That said, there are so many appealing personalities that you never feel like you get quite enough time to enjoy everyone. They all have their moments though: Sanders plotting with Lupino while he bruises peaches in a champagne glass, Price smirking under a portrait of his father as he wrecks havoc on a media giant, and Rhonda Fleming looking like a trophy wife, but acting like a bruiser, both mentally and physically.

The story is set in the media world, where newspaper, television, and wire service magnate Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) dies suddenly, leaving his empire to his underqualified son (Price). At the same time, a young man (John Drew Barrymore, Jr.) is murdering ladies who live alone, a case that Kyne had been following with interest. The younger Kyne decides to use the murder to play his company executives Mitchell, Sanders, and James Craig against each other in a competition for a juicy promotion. Whoever solves the murder first gets the job.

For the most part, the plot zips along efficiently, performances are solid and the proceedings are alternately thrilling and humorous. Barrymore is the weak spot, playing his psychopathic character too far over the top and contrasting badly with his more subtle costars. There is never any mystery as to who is doing the killing, making the methods these men use to win the focus of the action. There’s a lot going on here; it’s the kind of film that rewards multiple viewings.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), has less zing, but is a solid, for the most part straight forward thriller. It once again stars Dana Andrews, in addition to Joan Fontaine as his fiancĂ©e. Andrews plays a writer who plots with Fontaine’s father, a newspaper publisher (Sidney Blackmer) to prove the danger of the death penalty by making it appear that the younger man has committed a murder. The plan is for the publisher to exonerate Andrews before conviction, but a car accident disrupts their plans.

While the action proceeds intriguingly enough, it’s a bit off-putting how low energy everyone is about the shocking events unfolding. You’d expect more emotion than this in reaction to alarming and life-threatening dangers. That coolness is in some ways deceptive though and is perhaps of benefit as the plot unfolds.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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