Updated: Apr 11, 2018
“WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION”
Blu-ray; 1956; Not Rated, contains scenes of violence, period drinking and smoking; streaming via Amazon Video, iTunes
“BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION”
Blu-ray; 1956; Not Rated, contains scenes of violence, period drinking and smoking; streaming via Amazon Video
MENTION Director Fritz Lang and iconic images pop into mind: The femme robot from “Metropolis” (1927) and a dark Peter Lorre peering over his shoulder in “M” (1931).
Born in Austria, Lang’s career spanned six decades. He was an artist, a writer and a veteran of World War I. He escaped Nazi Germany to immigrate to the United States through a contract with MGM. Lang made dozens of edgy, suspenseful films, some of which, like his 1956 “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” were updated and remade.
Do these latest offerings from Warner Archive Collection hold up well? Yes, especially as film noir entrees reflecting the “Mad Men”- like drinking, smoking, and strict gender roles of the ‘50s. Men were supposed to be rough and tough; women were subservient homemakers.
There aren’t any homemakers here. Lang’s women have backbone, even rich sophisticate Susan Spencer played by Joan Fontaine in “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” and hard-drinking columnist Mildred Donner played by Ida Lupino in “While the City Sleeps.” Good-natured Dana Andrews, who once won an award for Most Cooperative Actor, takes on the tough-guy role in both films. He was the go-to leading man of the 1940s and ‘50s, and gets a chance to shine here.
“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” begins as a relatively simple protest on capital punishment. Newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) opposes the death penalty. He enlists his friend and former employee Tom Garrett (Andrews) in a scheme to expose a District Attorney for pushing juries to convict on circumstantial evidence. They contrive to have Garrett charged, convicted and sentenced to the electric chair in the recent murder of a burlesque dancer.
Is this a good idea? No. Are they successful? Yes … until Spencer dies before he has a chance to present the evidence that Garrett is innocent and expose the D.A. Spencer’s daughter Susan, Garrett's former fiancee, is torn between believing in the far-fetched plan or the jury’s findings. There’s more drama than suspense in “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” the pacing is slow as every detail is covered, but a good twist brightens proceedings. Imagine what Lang could have accomplished with the quick cut process.
“While the City Sleeps” could be ripped from today’s headlines – or an early episode of “C.S.I.” A stunning cast of Hollywood stars – Andrews, Lupino, Vincent Price, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff and John Drew Barrymore (credited as John Barrymore Jr.) – keep the story rolling as a serial killer stalks the streets of New York City. Surprisingly, the story is more about competition between newspaper departments than the killer.
On his deathbed, media mogul Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) demands coverage of the “Lipstick Killer” (Barrymore), a murderer who scrawled a message – “Ask Mother” – on the mirror of his latest victim. His son Walter (Vincent Price) inherits the business, but has no intention of taking the reins. He challenges the head of newsprint (Thomas Mitchell) and electronic media (Sanders) to best each other for the executive position. Dana Andrews plays Mitchell's ace in the hole, Edward Mobley, a reporter he hopes can top every story on the killer before other papers – or Sanders’ character – get it first. The wild jack of the contest is a jill – Ida Lupino’s Mildred Donner, a columnist, who uses smarts, wits and sex appeal to boost the odds of whichever man has the most to offer.
Romantic entanglements – some legit, some not – simmer alongside the match, while the killer continues doing what he loves best.
Both Lang films were remastered in 2K from a fine interpositive. The resulting 1080p transfer (2.00:1 ratio) provide clear new prints that look better than their theater debuts. The overall grayscale is excellent; however, detail is sharper in “While the City Sleeps” than “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.” Scratches, burn marks and dirt have been cleaned.
Both films have multiple interior and exterior scenes, making good use of their locations. Film grain is consistent throughout each, but with a difference. Shot in Chicago by three-time Oscar nominee William E. Snyder, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” has a heavier grain creating a softer look; visuals look sometimes fuzzy. Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, known for his collaborations with Robert Aldrich and Stanley Kramer, filmed “While the City Sleeps” in Los Angeles. Film grain is more refined, providing sharper contrast and image.
Like the pictures, the soundtracks – each upgraded from mono to DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 – have been scrubbed of buzz, clicks and pops to deliver clean, immersive sound. Dialogue comes through clearly and distinctly; although, Warner Archive Collection has provided easily accessible subtitles for those who use them.
Effects are immersive, particularly in an underground subway chase in “While the City Sleeps.” Herschel Burke Gilbert composed original scores for each highlighting emotional cues, suspense and drama. The only extra is a trailer on each film, all the better to showcase the dramatic difference between cable, TV and DVD presentations and Warner’s new transfer.
“While the City Sleeps” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” were Lang’s last films made in the U.S. before he returned to Europe in 1957. He hated the studio dictatorship. “I was disgusted,” he said, according to TCM’s overview. “I looked back over the past – how many films had been mutilated – and since I had no intention of dying of a heart attack, I said, ‘I think I’ll step out of this rat race.’”
Both of these noir entrees entertain, and, with their fine new transfers and soundtracks, are worth your time and pizza!
- Kay Reynolds