When Alfred Hitchcock made his first thrillers in the mid-1920s, he was often praised as “an English Fritz Lang,” Lang then being world famous for making nightmarish German crime pictures in the silent era, culminating with such 1930’s sound classics as M (about a child murderer) in Germany, and Fury (about a lynch mob) in the U.S., where he lived and worked from the mid-30s. When asked, Hitch always counted Fritz among his biggest influences, but film history being so fast-moving and fickle, from the mid-1940s onward, Lang was occasionally referred to as “the German Alfred Hitchcock.”
If you’re in the mood for a double-feature of American Lang suspense movies, both excellently representative of the kind of dark, ominous and scary work for which he was known to film buffs internationally, check out Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea in 1944’s THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (available on DVD) and George Sanders, Vincent Price, Ida Lupino, Rhonda Fleming, Dana Andrews, Thomas Mitchell, and John Barrymore, Jr. (Drew’s dad) in 1956’s WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (also available on DVD).
Although many actors did not get along with Lang’s autocratic, often dictatorial methods—-Spencer Tracy (after Fury), for example, vowed never to work with him again—– but The Woman in the Window was the first of two pictures Edward G. Robinson did with the director and the second of four that starred Joan Bennett, who reportedly liked him very much.
Both stars are also especially good in this cautionary tale of the dangers of temptation: Middle-class businessman Robinson, extremely fond of his family, finds himself feeling lonely when they leave for a vacation, and unfortunately vulnerable to a pickup by the sexy young woman Bennett plays tantalizingly. Soon Robinson is embroiled in a murder he commits in self defense, along with numerous other terrible repercussions, all because of a moment’s weakness. Although the playful ending has been much criticized as a commercial copout, Lang always defended it as justified by Robinson’s essential innocence; yet fate is rarely kind in Lang’s movies and only in this rare instance does he allow his victim a welcome (and cleverly visualized) reprieve.
No such luck for the group of self-serving, cynically grasping, generally hypocritical newspaper people who dominate the cast of characters in While the City Sleeps, which deals with a serial sex-murderer (Barrymore), on whom they are all trying to get leads, or apprehend, mainly in order to improve their position at the big city newspaper, where they’re each vying for a newly-vacated executive position.
Lang enjoys portraying the killer as essentially more honest than the supposedly upright citizens on his trail: after all, doesn’t the murderer have the self-awareness and decency to plead to be caught “before I kill more” (this based on an actual case in Chicago)? The stellar ensemble of solid B-picture stars are all adroit and likeably scabrous in their various underhanded dealings. Though the film was quickly made on a tight budget and sometimes shows it, Lang always spoke highly of While the City Sleeps, considering it among the best of his American pictures, a work that had “something to say.”
The Vienna-born master only made one more film in this country, and three back in Germany before entering an uncomfortable retirement that lasted seventeen years until his death in 1976. This sad period included eventual blindness, plus a single film appearance—playing a director named Fritz Lang—-in one of Jean-Luc Godard’s best pictures, Contempt (Le Mepris; 1963), co-starring Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, and Michel Piccoli. The melancholy world-weary wisdom Lang displayed there connects clearly to the artist behind these two exciting and provocative melodramas about some of urban life’s least pleasant aspects.