REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:
CHARLES EINSTEIN – The Bloody Spur. Dell 1st Edition #5, paperback original, 1953. Black Curtain Press, softcover, 2013.
WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS. RKO, 1956. Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Sally Forrest, Ida Lupino, James Craig, Vincent Price, John Drew Barrymore. Robert Warwick. Screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the novel The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein. Directed by the one & only Fritz Lang.
Okay. At the time of this writing, and from all I can tell, this is the earliest film to be based on a paperback original. I’m open to other suggestions.
Einstein’s book is what I call a novel-novel: a diverse cast of characters interacting in a dramatic but realistic situation, having affairs, changing jobs, getting drunk, palling around, quarreling and otherwise getting some drama into their day-to-day lives.
In this case the impetus is the death of the second-in-command at the Kyne Publishing empire (the book opens, in fact, at his funeral) and the hustling of high-ranking underlings to get promoted to his place. As a sub-plot, there is a serial killer terrorizing New York and the race to the near-top quickly devolves into a competition to be the first with the scoop on the identity of the killer, an undertaking that turns into detective work, seduction, betrayal, and more drinking — these newsmen all act like they think they’re in a Fredric Brown story.
Einstein does a capable job of cutting between them, though: a crusty old newspaper editor, an ambitious chief of wire services, a lascivious female columnist and a philandering ad man, punctuating the story with some catchy lower-level lives: a smart crime reporter, another not-so-smart reporter, cops, secretaries… and the killer himself.
I said “capable” not “brilliant.” The Blood Spur will keep you reading, but it’s not the sort of thing one remembers for long or with a great deal of affection: passable but not much more. Surprising then that the film made from it is (to use a hack’s pet phrase) so gripping and suspenseful.
Well, maybe not all that surprising. Director Fritz Lang mastered the Movies in the 1920s, adapted to social commentary in the 30s, moved to international intrigue and film noir in the 40s, and the 50s found him still attuned to the times, with an edgy rock-and-roll tempo that seems to roar right out of The Wild One.
Of course it helps that he had a cast like that. Dana Andrews and Sally Forrest play the reporter/secretary couple with affection that never turns to cuteness, George Sanders is his reliably scheming self, playing nicely off Thomas Mitchell’s ink-stained editor, and Vincent Price is agreeably slimy as the big boss manipulating them all. Also I should make special mention of Ida Lupino as the -um- flirtatious columnist radiating no-nonsense sex appeal that contrasts nicely with Rhonda Fleming’s duplicitous trophy wife.
With a few exceptions (which I’ll get to later) Casey Robinson’s screenplay follows Einstein’s novel closely — sometimes eerily so. Little bits of business, place names and odd phrases like “in cold daylight” appear on the screen with surprising faithfulness in a medium that was never known for its fidelity. But the changes are even more significant.
Starting with the ending, well, in the book it’s pretty prosaic; the killer tries to assault a stranger ”in cold daylight,” a chase through the subway tunnels ensues, and if you can’t guess the outcome I won’t spoil it for you except to say one of our intrepid newsmen gets the scoop. In the film however, reporter Dana Andrews decides that the best way to catch the killer is to use his fiancée as bait, putting a personal and more involving twist on the proceedings.
(PARENTHETICAL NOTE: I don’t know about you, but to me having your betrothed use you as the potential victim of a mad killer is a sign that this relationship may be in trouble. I’m just saying….)
Another note of interest: in the novel, the killer obsessively reads the Bible; in the movie, he’s had his mind warped by Comic Books, and thank you, Dr. Wertham; I don’t think the Legion of Decency would have let them get away with that anyway.
And finally, there’s a delicious in-joke near the beginning: The book kicks off with the death of the second-in-command at Kyne Enterprises; in the film the story is kicked off by the death of the patriarch himself, leaving his son (Vincent Price) to select someone to actually run the damn thing. Price lets the competition hinge on a comment his late daddy made about catching the serial killer – thus making While the City Sleeps the second film centered around the last words of a dead publisher whose name starts with “K.”
No prizes for guessing the first.