Neither has enjoyed as lasting an impact as “Heat” — not to mention Lang’s other masterpieces, from “M” to “Metropolis,” or his string of pulpy Dr. Mabuse features — but are by no means worth ignoring. The two are now available as manufactured-on-demand DVDs from Warner Archive, in remastered editions.
As the “Reasonable” hero, Dana Andrews plays novelist Tom Garrett, penning a book about the failures of the justice system, particularly in regard to the punishment of execution. He’s so deep into it, that his fiancée (Joan Fontaine) is essentially booted to the curb for being a “distraction” until he’s done writing. To help spur things along, his future father-in-law, Austin (Sidney Blackmer), hatches a plan: Become a guinea pig.
In other words, Austin explains, make it look like Tom is the murderer of a recently slain burlesque performer, taking photos of their plan all the while. That way, he can be arrested and experience the trial and sentencing process firsthand. Then, after Tom is found guilty, Austin can dig out all the prints and show the judge that he’s been punk’d, and Tom will be free. Free! Free to write his surefire bestseller.
“That’s a weird, crazy idea!” Tom says … and yet agrees to it.
So he and pop-in-law-to-be go to burlesque clubs — it’s all pointy bras and pure ditz — and alleyways, planting their evidence, taking snapshots at every step. As planned, it lands Tom in the pokey and then in the courtroom, where the last half of the picture lays out. What’s not planned, however, is that … well, don’t let the back of the box spoil it. The film offers a ludicrous setup, sure, but carries an awesome, last-minute twist (not spoiled on the box) that caught even me off-guard.
It wouldn’t work in today’s multiplex era, which may suggest why 2009’s remake starring Michael Douglas did so poorly. And also because Peter Hyams is no Fritz Lang.
Almost as fun as Lang’s more-than-reasonable “Reasonable” is the “While the City Sleeps,” which beat it to theaters by a full four months. Andrews returns as well, this time as crack reporter Edward Mobley, out to beat his competition in solving the Lipstick Killer murder case that has the city under siege. We know he’s a socially awkward drugstore delivery boy (John Drew Barrymore, Drew’s daddy!), as Lang occasionally plants us — and makes us an accessory? — in the killer’s POV. The guy sees a woman’s pantyhose and gets as visibly horny as the Trix Rabbit for breakfast cereal.
Andrews’ character is also engaged this time ’round, but instead of ignoring his betrothed as he did in “Reasonable,” he flat-out uses her (Sally Forrest) as bait, in hopes of luring the killer. But his best plan — and far and away, the best part of the movie, is when he takes to the airwaves to insult the cold-blooded criminal, firing off a litany of evidence aimed to frighten and enrage: “Item two: You’re husky! … Item four: You read the so-called ‘comic books.’ … Item seven: You’re a mama’s boy!”
Remarks one of Ed’s confidants, “That was a pretty flossy telecast,” to which I second.
“Sleeps” makes do with a more complex plot and a larger cast, notably including a non-horror role for Vincent Price — sans evil mustache! — and a perfectly saucy one for randy, redheaded Rhonda Fleming.
Both films are enjoyable slices of old-school noir the way it should be: taut, tight and in glorious black and white. —Rod Lott