Ripped From the Headlines – While the City Sleeps (1956)
Most classic movie fans are well acquainted with the
Barrymore acting clan, which began with Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Drew,
and continued down the line to Drew Barrymore. Sandwiched somewhere in there
was John Drew Barrymore – John Barrymore’s son and Drew’s father – who had a
minor career that spanned two decades in both feature films and TV productions.
One of his best was While the City Sleeps (1956), where he was featured
as a serial murderer known as “The Lipstick Killer.”
While the City Sleeps was based on a 1953 novel called The Bloody Spur, by Charles Einstein, and centered on several journalists at the Kyne News Service who are competing for the job of executive director by trying to be the first to solve a series of killings. The film stars Dana Andrews as television anchor Edward Mobley, George Sanders as wire service manager Mark Loving, Thomas Mitchell as newspaper editor John Day, James Craig as photo service editor Harry Kritzer, and Ida Lupino as reporter Mildred Donner. Like the novel, the film alternates between the cutthroat antics of the journalists and the gruesome killings that have the city gripped in a vise of fear and paranoia.
Einstein was inspired by a case involving three murders in Chicago during the mid-1940s. In 1945, two women – Josephine Ross and Frances Brown — were found brutally killed in their homes; on the wall of Brown’s apartment, police found written in lipstick, “For heavens’ sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.” A few weeks after the second murder, a six-year-old girl, Suzanne Degnan, was taken from her home on the city’s North Side; her dismembered body was found several days after her disappearance. The city’s newspapers dubbed the perpetrator as “The Lipstick Killer.”
After pursuing the killer for six months, police arrested
17-year-old William Heirens, who was found at the scene of a burglary in the
neighborhood where the little girl lived. It turned out that Heirens had been
breaking into houses for several years, as a “hobby” that he indulged in to
relieve the tension caused by his parents’ frequent arguments. The stolen items
he collected ranged from guns to handkerchiefs. After attending two youth
detention centers, he was found to be an superb student; he skipped his senior
year of high school and enrolled as an engineering major at the University of
Chicago. He was a student there at the time of his arrest.
Heirens was charged with murder after police determined that
his fingerprints had been found on a ransom note at the Degnan home and local newspapers
reported that Heirens had confessed to the crime. He was then charged with the Ross
and Brown killings; prosecutors claimed to have incriminating evidence against
him for the crimes. In exchange for a guilty plea, Heirens was offered three
consecutive life sentences, and his attorneys advised him to accept the deal.
He did, only to recant a short time later, saying he’d only entered the guilty
plea to avoid a death sentence.
For the rest of his life, Heirens maintained his innocence,
claiming that he’d signed a 19-page confession only after he was sedated by
police. He spent 65 years in prison – one of the longest prison terms served in
U.S. history – dying of complications from diabetes in 2012. During his imprisonment,
he became the first prisoner in Illinois to earn a four-year college degree and
established several prison education programs. Over the years, Heirens sought
his release approximately 30 times; at one hearing, his attorneys charged that
the case had more “prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent defense counsel,
unprecedented prejudicial pretrial publicity, junk science, probably false
confessions and mistaken eyewitness identification than any other case we have
studied.” There were even rumors that the lipstick message had been written by
a reporter after the killing in order to sell more newspapers.
Directed by Fritz Lang – who had previously helmed such
noirs as Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), and The
Big Heat (1953) – While the City Sleeps is as much concerned with
the unethical world of yellow journalism and the competition among the
journalists as it is with the actual crime; in one scene, the head of the media
enterprise tells his staff, “I want every woman to be scared silly every time she
puts any lipstick on. Call this baby ‘The Lipstick Killer’, smack across the
front page!” And the tagline on one of the film’s posters announces that the
journalists would “sell out their own mothers” in their attempt to catch the
killer. The film was the second-to-last feature that Lang directed in America;
within two years, he would return to his home country of Germany and direct
four more films there before ending his career in 1960.
If you’re a Fritz Lang fan, a true crime enthusiast, or a
lover of interesting noirs – or you’re simply curious to see John Drew
Barrymore on screen – you’ll want to check out While the City Sleeps.
You only owe it to yourself.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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