While the City Sleeps / Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) Blu-ray Reviews: Puttin' on the Fritz

Fritz Lang's final two American films ‒ both starring Dana Andrews ‒ get the much-deserved Warner Archive Collection treatment.
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Metropolis. M. The Dr. Mabuse series. There are so many reasons to love Fritz Lang's early, German-language films, all of which helped define the German Expressionist movement. Following Lang's fleeing of Nazi Germany in the early '30s, the Austrian-German-born filmmaker put his expertise use of light and shadows to become a pioneer in the world of film noir ‒ helming such classics as Ministry of Fear and Scarlet Street, as well as the iconic 1953 masterpiece, The Big Heat. Even as his 20-year-plus Hollywood career began to wrap up in the late '50s, Lang's filmic contributions were as marvelously dark as ever.

Prior to Lang's return to Germany in the late '50s, he directed two final features in the US, both of which were picked up for release by RKO and distributed in 1956: While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Produced by a womanizing ex-liquor salesman named Bert E. Friedlob (who died the same year), these two film noir titles from the man who brought us the underrated wartime masterpiece Man Hunt and are now available to marvel over on Blu-ray thanks to the fine, film-lovin' folk at the Warner Archive Collection.

Though technically just a B-movie like its counterpart, Lang's While the City Sleeps is definitely the superior production of the two. A darkly rich crime drama wherein a reporter tries to out a serial killer that is rather reminiscent of half of the psychological thrillers Hollywood produced throughout the latter half of the '90s alone, While the City Sleeps also boasts a cast to die for. The film opens with the disturbing realization New York City is at the mercy of a serial killer ‒ one whom the media dubs the Lipstick Killer after he leaves behind a cryptic message at the scene of his latest crime in maquillage, and whose filmic origin started out, sadly enough, in reality.

But that isn't the only game devoted reporter Edward Mobley is thrust into. Upon the aforementioned, then-sensational revelation of an unstable rogue murderer, media mogul Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick, in one of his final roles) passes away, leaving his spoiled and entitled son Walter (the incomparable Vincent Price) in charge. But the Junior Kyne, ever-resentful towards his late father, decides to play a different game with the newspaper's three top executives: whoever identifies the Lipstick Killer first gets to take over the entire show, leading to a war between department admins Mark Loving (George Sanders), Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), and Harry Kritzer (James Craig).

Thus, the competitive manipulation begins as Mobley ‒ who, disinterested in the job the elder Kyne repeatedly asked him to take, wants little more than to settle down and marry Loving's lovely secretary, Nancy (Sally Forrest) ‒ uses his resources and those of his office friends and foes alike in order to put the pieces together. After personally addressing ‒ and taunting ‒ the murderer on-air in a dramatic broadcast, Mobley deliberately sets himself in the crosshairs of the dreaded Lipstick Killer (effectively played by Drew Barrymore's father, John Drew Barrymore, still in his early John Barrymore, Jr. days); an invitation to fate the journalist also imposes on the head of his own recent bride-to-be.

Based on The Bloody Spur ‒ Charles Einstein's novel about real-life Lipstick Killer William Heirens ‒ this riveting (and cynical) '50s thriller from Now, Voyager screenwriter Casey Robinson also stars Rhonda Fleming portrays Price's unfaithfully bored trophy wife, Ida Lupino as a very flirty (but highly manipulated) star writer, and Howard Duff as Andrews' police lieutenant friend. Featuring various "K" logoed items around the newspaper office leftover from Orson Welles' immortal Citizen Kane, While the City Sleeps features some superb noir photography by the great Edward Laszlo (Kiss Me Deadly, Judgment at Nuremberg).

Herschel Burke Gilbert, whose contributions to film and TV scores ranged from It's a Wonderful Life to The Rifleman to The Witch Who Came from the Sea (!), provides the soundtrack for this must-see Lang outing. Originally shot in open matte, RKO released While the City Sleeps in their phony, matted 2.0:1 "Superscope" aspect ratio (Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was issued to cinemas in the same manner). Previously released by the Warner Archive in a matted widescreen DVD-R, this WAC Blu-ray comes to us via a new 2K scan of an original fine-grain master. Despite a little softness from the cropping, the image here is spectacular throughout.

While the City Sleeps features a DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono English soundtrack, which has been culled from an optical source as the original magnetic masters were tossed out by RKO. Removable, yellow English (SDH) subtitles are included, as is the film's original theatrical trailer, which has been remastered in 1080p for this Blu-ray release. Sadly, there are no other special features to be found here, nor is there an option to view the film in the 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio director Lang and cinematographer Laszlo framed and filmed the movie in. But it's still a damned good film either way, so I can't fault the Warner Archive or this Blu-ray for any reason whatsoever.

Speaking of faults, this takes us to Lang's final American production, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Debuting in cinemas less than four months after the initial release of While the City Sleeps, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt shares the same leading actor, producer, editor (Gene Fowler, Jr., I Married a Monster from Outer Space, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), composer, and even atmosphere of the previous film. Well, that and they both feature a ladykiller at the center of the drama. Heck, the films even feature newspaper men as their misguided leads. But don't mistake that for a sign this one is just as good as its predecessor, as the similarities pretty much end there.

Beginning with a strong opening scene wherein a death row inmate is executed in the electric chair, this precursor to the other half of Hollywood thrillers from the '90s starts to lose its charge shortly thereafter. This time around, Mr. Andrews plays Tom Garrett ‒ a mild-mannered reporter and writer who intends to marry lovely Susan (Joan Fontaine), whose father is hard-working newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer). After taking his prospective son-in-law to the grisly prison execution ‒ which, in this case, was nothing more than a state-sanctioned murder thanks to circumstantial evidence and a kill-crazy District Attorney ‒ Spencer makes an entirely different proposal to Garrett.

The plan? Garrett and Spencer are to plant a number of false clues in order to make it look like Garrett committed a murder. When D.A. Thompson (a marvelously pompous Philip Bourneuf) clumsily puts the pieces together, he is sure to arraign Garrett for murder, wherein Spencer will come forth with proof to exonerate the innocent man and show how unjust circumstantial evidence ‒ and the District Attorney ‒ can be. Such an extravagant waste of taxpayers' money cannot go forth without an actual murder, of course, and when the papers report the brutal murder of a nightclub dancer ‒ a case with no leads whatsoever ‒ the two '50s-era social justice warriors spring into action.

Alas, underneath all of Garrett and Spencer's planting of phony goods at miscellaneous locations connected to the real crime, one cannot shake the feeling something is either already amiss or ready to go horribly awry. The immediate suspicion the viewer gets ‒ especially as the editing clearly shows Spencer taking candid photos of his daughter's hubby-to-be planing false evidence before he is "ready" to do so ‒ is that Spencer himself is, for some reason, planning to set Garrett up for a fall. (You know, like in half of the thrillers from the '90s?) But when Beyond a Reasonable Doubt finally gets around to pulling out the rug from beneath us, we learn a truth far more cynical and Langian.

In fact, the twist ending here from screenwriter Douglas Morrow feels even too cynical for Fritz Lang: the pace is slow, while the pay-off just doesn't do much justice for a film about injustice. (And if that's not a clear-cut case of irony, I don't know what is.) Boasting cinematography by William E. Snyder ‒ who, in addition to shooting a heap of live-action Disney movies in the late '60s and early '70s, also photographed Creature from the Black LagoonBeyond a Reasonable Doubt leaves a lot of uncertainty lingering about long after the 80-minute ordeal is over. A 2009 remake starring Jesse Metcalfe, Amber Tamblyn, Michael Douglas, and Orlando Jones proved just as unsuccessful.

Also exhibited theatrically in the previously iterated faux widescreen Superscope format also known as RKO-Scope, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt makes a triumphant return to the Warner Archive label, giving fans of the film a chance to upgrade the 2011 DVD-R with a fresh crisp HD print which comes to us courtesy a new 2K scan of an original fine-grain master. Presented in the matted 2.0:1 AR, the Warner Archive's restoration work on this ‒ frankly, dumb ‒ thriller is undoubtedly the reason to check this one out (even by the standards of Fritz Lang enthusiasts, it fails to make much of an impression), as the MPEG-4 AVC 1080p encode presents a beautifully cleaned-up presentation.

Like Beyond a Reasonable Doubt's superior companion feature While the City Sleeps, the DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono English soundtrack for this WAC Blu-ray has been culled from an original optical source, since RKO was not in the habit of keeping magnetic masters when these films were purchased and subsequently released by them. Removable English (SDH) subtitles are included with this selection from the Warner Bros. extensive vault of forgotten favorites and minor miracles. Bonus materials for this release are limited to nothing more than the film's original (matted) trailer, the advertising of which seems to focus more on the phony widescreen aspect ratio than anything else.

Nevertheless, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was the final domestic project of an industry pioneer and film noir icon. As such, it should be ‒ and regularly is ‒ remembered for that reason and that reason alone. Love it or hate it, the fact that both it and Lang's penultimate American feature have been given the Warner Archive Collection treatment is something special in itself. Naturally, I'll recommend While the City Sleeps over the latter flick any day, but both films deserve a look just the same. Just be sure to watch Beyond a Reasonable Doubt first so that While the City Sleeps will seen even better than it already is by comparison.

Highly Recommended. One way or the other.

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