Thursday, February 19, 2009

Noir City Northwest: While the City Sleeps (1956)/Shakedown (1950)

Context can be helpful. I’d already seen While the City Sleeps, but I was able to appreciate the movie anew thanks to the introductory remarks by Noir City host Eddie Muller. For instance, I had no idea that Charles Einstein, author of the novel on which the film is based, was the step-brother of Albert Brooks. More importantly, I didn’t realize that in all probability a good number of the actors onscreen are plastered. I only suspected it.

It’s an odd, odd movie, made late in director Fritz Lang’s career when his budgets and apparently his casts were tight. As a result it has a baffling, hazy pace, with some scenes taking forever and others played in accelerated motion. Every set, even the homes of the great and the good, is threadbare, furnished at the finer flea markets of Poverty Row. Never before have I seen such ugly lamps.

But the story is solid. When the wastrel son of a press baron inherits daddy’s empire, he pits his best newsmen against each other for the top job. Catching “The Lipstick Killer” will go a long way toward securing the spot. As Eddie said, it’s not a thriller so much as a drama about office politics. Think Executive Suite with the added bonus of a psycho played by Drew Barrymore’s father.

The cast is like noir old home week. Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, Rhonda Fleming. In fact, the entire enterprise feels more like a TV special. Ovaltine presents Palmolive Suspense Theatre, brought to you by Firestone. Fritz Lang said it was his favorite of his American films. A strange choice, considering that he made Scarlet Street. Maybe he’s proud of the fact that in spite of many obstacles, the movie still works.

Seattle’s own Howard Duff has a supporting role in City, but he’s front and center in the juicy and long thought lost B-movie Shakedown. Duff is an up-and-coming news photographer who quickly figures out that the way to get ahead in the picture racket is to be underhanded. Soon he’s pitting two San Francisco crime bosses (Brian Donlevy and Lawrence Tierney) against each other while getting his own name all over page one. It’s the kind of movie they really don’t make anymore, because the main character is an unrepentant bastard. I liked it.