“He’s the killer! Stop him Stop him!” That would be the ‘lipstick killer’ Robert Manners (John Barrymore, Jr.). Barrymore is just one of the star-studded cast in Fritz Lang’s late film noir. Vincent Price’s Walter Kyne has become the heir of his newspaper mogul father Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick). Due to Walter’s somewhat eccentric personality (isn’t every Price character eccentric?) he makes a game-like competition for the top job among employees Mark Lovering (George Sanders), Jon Day Griffth (Thomas Mitchell), Harry Kritzer (James Craig), and Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino).
Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) is Lovering’s secretary. Rhonda Fleming plays Price’s wife Dorothy Kyne, whom Harry’s having an affair with. Mark and Mildred are having their own fun. Howard Duff is Lieutenant Kaufman. TV reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) works with his friend Griffith on the case.
What’s afoot is hardly a game–the goal of the competition is finding ‘the lipstick killer’ (Apparently, there was a 1945-46 real life ‘lipstick killer’ in Chicago). Unlike the real killer who was obsessed with the Bible, this guy is more aptly hooked on comic books…Thanks to Eddie Muller, host of Noir Alley on TCM for that background info.
First thing we see suspicious guy Robert looking for victims: he’s got #1 taken care of before the credits role. “Ask mother” reads the lipstick clue written on the wall. Next thing, Ed is chatting up Nancy, as the murder report comes in. Amos is in a hospital bed (in the office, nonetheless), fretting over the story. He kicks off after that one scene. Walter shows up quickly, trying to fit into dad’s shoes, wearing all black. Apparently, he was known as that “idiot son.”
No question that Walter is a power-junkie; the fact that he’s let on that he was undervalued by pops means that he wants to demonstrate that he’s his own man. I’ll go with the “weak-spined blue-eyed fish” description, according to Griffith. Anyway, at Walter’s place, Harry and Dorothy flirt around. More on the level, at Nancy’s, so do she and Ed. The purpose of showing this bit was to see a hand jigger her door, as the killer does to gain entry; but, actually it was Ed who did it.
That leads to his deduction on the killer’s modus operandi. We learn also that Ed and Nancy are engaged. Another tidbit gleaned from Noir Alley was that Andrews was unfortunately engaged to the bottle, in this and other scenes. At police headquarters, Ed meets with Lieutenant Kaufman. They’ve got a suspect, a janitor, who had found the dead woman. They can see he couldn’t have done it. But, somewhat gratuitously, we get a comic book lecture.
What Ed and Kaufman figure is that the killer’s young and ‘a momma’s boy’ Aha! Look here: there’s a scurrilous comic book (actually girlie-slasher-pulp stuff) at the next murder scene. Mark thinks he’s cracked the case, but we already know the janitor didn’t do it. Dead end. Ed is on the air, taunting the killer; Robert is watching in his pjs, drooling, but surprised that the cops know so much about him. Now, we see his mom looking in on him.
This is Psycho territory stuff, as Robert remembers his mom’s conversation with a neighbor when he was younger “He’s exactly like a little girl, isn’t he?!” Looks like he’s ready to show her what’s what, but he setttles for breakfast. Across town, Ed and Nancy hang out, but he warns her that she might be targeted because of her association with the paper.
Another bar scene: Mildred and Ed. He knows that Mark sent her to spy on him, maybe to make sure he doesn’t give up the details of their botched investigation. The other set of unfaithfuls, Dorothy and Harry, are getting cozy. The killer is pretty nervy, going after Dorothy at Harry’s place. Strangely, Nancy is conveniently available just across the hall.
Lipstick guy scopes out the bar–looking a bit like a sawed-off Marlon Brando from The Wild One. At this point, Ed is ready to junk everything for Mildred. Are all of these guys jerks? Not only that, but the entire office knows what’s going on. The office politics is almost as brutal as in Glenngary Glen Ross.
The incredible juxtaposition of Walter practicing putting in shorts and black knee socks vs. Dorothy working out in a fetching swim suit is great campy stuff. As he’s lotioning her up, the phone rings; she tells him “I’ll get it, your hands are oily.” More like his whole personality–ironically, it was Harry calling her. Back to Ed and Nancy trying to ‘explain’ his Mildred date.
Kaufman thankfully shows up to get us back to the murders. No one in these bar scenes needs another drink. The lipstick guy is everywhere. Ed speculates that the killer will strike in the daytime; that is, target Nancy, even though she has police protection. Sure enough he comes calling. But, Ed has fixed her door to prevent entry. He goes across the hall to get Dorothy; he gets in, but she escapes.
Now we get a cool foot chase. Great use here of subway stations, tracks, trains, tunnels, and manholes to build the noir sense of confinement in an industrial maze. This is really the only noirish sequence in the movie, but it’s very effective. There’s a clever use of both jarring noises and complete silence, a great counterpart to the usual light and shadow contrast. At any rate, Robert’s caught.
There’s got to be one more bar scene. The point is to bring everyone together to shake things out: Ed gives Walter his comeuppance, and then gets Nancy back. Things tie up pretty neat: Ed marries Nancy, he gets the story credit, and Jon Day gets the plum job.
The movie’s taken some heat for treating a dark topic with a somewhat breezy tone–that’s true to some extent. A non-horror film featuring Vincent Price runs the risk of mangling the tone (i.e., the putting/tanning scene). Actually he’s not on screen nearly as much as Andrews. It might’ve been better to see more of the killer’s character. I don’t mean Barrymore slithering around looking for victims–that was well-done, but more scenes with him at home with his mother would add to the creepiness.
As it is, While the City Sleeps is pretty much a relationship-heavy melodrama with a crime backdrop. It’s actually fairly entertaining, but uneven and lacking focus. The worst thing is that most of the characters aren’t very interesting, or very likeable. The dialogue is very snappy, and things flow well; it just doesn’t add up to much.
Farmermouse really had too many beer chasers, so he gives this one seven basement bar rooms. 7/10.