The case can be made that WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956) has one of the best pedigrees of any film noir of the era. Calling the shots is veteran noir director Fritz Lang. The screenplay, by Casey Robinson (adapted from the book THE BLOODY SPUR by Charles Einstein), is loaded with cynicism and venom. But it's the cast that skyrockets this one into the stratosphere.
Dana Andrews. Rhonda Fleming. George Sanders. Howard Duff. Thomas Mitchell. Vincent Price. Ida Lupino. All of those performers are solid on their own. Put them in a standard drama and you've got a very good movie. Put them in a Fritz Lang film noir and you've got a masterpiece.
Imagine if Charles Foster Kane had lived until the mid-50s, built a multi-media empire and then died, leaving everything to a son. That's the situation here when Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick), head of Kyne, Incorporated, a company consisting of a daily newspaper, a wire service, a photo service and a broadcast television network, all marked by a circle with the letter "K" within (props left over at RKO studios from CITIZEN KANE (1941)), dies early in the film. He leaves his company in the hands of his spoiled son, Walter (Vincent Price), a man who knows absolutely nothing about running the business. The elder Kyne also wanted his various companies to give full coverage to the so-called "Lipstick Killer", a serial killer terrorizing New York City, leaving a trail of dead women behind.
Walter realizes he needs help so he creates a contest of sorts, a competition between three different men and their respective departments. The winner, the one to crack the Lipstick Killer case, will be named executive assistant director of Kyne, Inc. This sets in motion a cutthroat race for scoops and extras, with nothing standing in the competitors way.
The players include newspaper editor Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), an old-fashioned newspaperman. Wire service boss Mark Loving (George Sanders) and his secretary Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) are the second faction. Loving recruits gossip columnist Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) in his quest to win the job. Photo service boss Mark Kritzer (James Craig), is sleeping with Kyne's wife, Dorothy (the luscious Rhonda Fleming). Meanwhile, television commentator and former crime reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), sides with Griffith, while wooing Nancy and working with police detective Lt. Kaufman (Howard Duff) for inside information.
Got all that? Good, because those tangled relationships form the backdrop of a hard nosed, cynical story about how the media will stop at nothing to get a story. How far will the players go? Mobley is willing to use fiance Nancy as bait in a trap for the killer, a plan that almost results in the deaths of two women. And Mobley, a hard drinker (Dana Andrews playing a drunk, imagine that) and philanderer (he cheats on Nancy with Mildred), is the closest thing to a hero that this story has. At least he gains a measure of redemption at the end of the film but so what? He's far from a noble, honorable man.
But he's a prince in comparison to his avaricious co-workers. While the killer (John Drew Barrymore), who is shown reading corrupting crime comic books, is intriguing, the real dark core of WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS lies within the newsrooms of Kyne, Inc. Men and women who will do anything to get ahead, to curry favor, to climb the corporate ladder, are the real "killers" here.
Looking at WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS from a 2017 perspective, the film seems remarkably prescient in it's depiction of a multi-media conglomerate and the need to be first with a story, the personal cost be damned.