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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Friedlob and Lang's Tabloid Thrillers --- Part Two

While The City Sleeps got no chance to build momentum, let alone gain sleeper status, which under better distribution circumstance, might have come. Key openings were spread way apart --- New York in May (1956), Los Angeles in August, and finally Chicago in September. RKO saturated mass circulation magazines from May 24 in LIFE to July 8 in Movie Time, but what good were full-page ads with playdates so delayed as Los Angeles and Chicago? Was there showman resistance to booking While The City Sleeps? Here may have been another of those shows to suffer for theatres no longer being affiliated with production/distribution, as picking and choosing exhibs weren't rushing to play While The City Sleeps.

Gotham's two-week stand followed seven weeks of The Conqueror at the Criterion, receipts for While The City Sleeps called "fair" by Variety. At $16,000 for its opening frame, Friedlob and Lang's thriller at least beat up-the-street The Killing's initial week by $4,000, which illustrates how pics we now celebrate barely eked out house nuts on first-run, even in largest bergs where you'd figure savvy viewers were aplenty to support them. Pittsburgh's Stanley Theatre also had While The City Sleeps in May among a "string of clucks," that jinx broken by arrival of The Man Who Knew Too Much and $18,000 for its first week. Just preceding While The City Sleeps took a measly $8,000, especially punk for a 3,800 seat venue, and was gratefully swept out with "recent duds" to make way for Hitchcock's Paramount hit.

LA saw "dull" receipts for While The City Sleeps upon August arrival and two weeks play with RKO-reissued Flying Leathernecks. Whatever interest magazine ads generated may well have dissipated by this late booking. Certainly that was true of Chicago and September's arrival of While The City Sleeps. In fact, it played as a second feature to Republic's Lisbon, starring Ray Milland, the tandem earning a "fair" $26,000 at the massive Chicago Theatre (3,900 seats). Beyond A Reasonable Doubt had by this time opened in New York at Loew's State, where it performed "below hopes" with $13,500 on a first week. A second would be cut short to bring in MGM's The Power and The Prize. Reasonable Doubt was sold as a thriller with a "trick" ending. Maybe it wasn't tricky enough. Reviews would not be so generous as for While The City Sleeps. LA saw Reasonable Doubt with another RKO retread, The Big Sky, two weeks again the limit with lackluster turnout.

Maybe the trouble for both While The City Sleeps and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt was a distributor on last legs and patronage done with commonplace product. Movies by 1956 had to be special to pull customers away from television. Youth might support hot rod and monster fests, but adults, to whom Friedlob and Lang aspired, wouldn't pay babysitting and car park fees to watch stuff barely distinguishable from freebies at home. While The City Sleeps had a good concept, maybe even ahead of its time, but all the cast, save Dana Andrews, had done TV --- Ida Lupino was more associated with that medium than with movies by Spring '56 when Sleeps sought admissions to watch her emote. Failure to sync up expensive national advertising with key playdates for the film were ruinous as well, but this was symptomatic of an industry having lost that essential wheel of theatres owned by and standing ready to play off merchandise when and where distribs dictated. A show like While The City Sleeps had to do without smooth machinery that would have pushed it through ten years earlier, but was too broken down now to be of much help.

A Limping RKO Tenders It's Product for 1956's Autumn Season

RKO Hoped The Stripper Lure Would Cinch
Patrons for Beyond A Reasonable Doubt
Sex, or the promise of it, even if an empty one, was still a bedrock to selling. Both Sleeps and Doubt had hooks exploitable --- the former and lipstick killings, the latter with strip-tease backdrop to much of its narrative. Knowing patrons saw ads for the tease they were. Whatever impurities were promised, there was still a Production Code to scrub clean releases via US companies. This was how foreign pix, not subject to the Code, made inroads after the war. Beyond A Reasonable Doubt based much of a campaign on its "Hush-Hush" ending, a device used before (1950's In A Lonely Place had been billed as The Bogart Suspense Picture With The Surprise Finish). Risk for Reasonable Doubt was letting down patrons with a fade they did see coming. As it seems not to have taken off ticket-wise, we can assume the ending didn't surprise, or that customers couldn't be bothered one way or the other.

Beyond A Reasonable Doubt Goes New York's
Second-Run Saturation Route as a Support Feature
Beyond A Reasonable Doubt posits Dana Andrews as a man who frames himself for an unsolved murder in order to show how anyone can be sentenced wrongly to death, therefore making the case against capital punishment. There was reluctance to go the distance, however, with regard politics such a theme invited. The film's writer, Douglas Morrow, gave assurance that Doubt's story "does not take sides." His twist ending neatly got 'round thornier issues by putting Doubt square in melodrama/exploitation's column. While The City Sleeps and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt were for years available only in full-frame edition. Warner Archives now offers both in wide screen, in Sleeps' case, a little  too wide, as SuperScope's 2.1 ratio over-tightens the intended 1.85 frame. Doubt's a more comfortable fit, being spared SuperScope retro-fit, and neatly cut to 1.85 measurement. Wider presentation enables the two to entertain better than was the case over a past fifty-five years. With interest in Fritz Lang on continual rise, these should be welcome arrivals on DVD.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer offers some thoughts of why "Beyond A Reasonable Doubt" failed to find its larger audience :

The number of young families with children was probably another reason why television had such an effect on the ticket sales of films like Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. My family would be a good example of this. I was a “baby boomer” with my sister, both of us having been born during the early fifties. My father had a management position at a new U.S. Steel plant in eastern Pennsylvania and we lived in a Levitt house. In 1954, my parents bought their very first new car, a Studebaker Commander Starliner. Even so, they couldn’t afford a baby sitter every time they wanted to go out. As we grew older, they took us along when they went to the movies, but this only added to the expense and complications. Watching television at home was just a lot easier and cheaper.

What did kind of movies would they see? The titles I remember from this period are The Bridge on the River Kwai, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Moby Dick, and Take the High Ground. All of them were big, heavily promoted movies from major studios with top stars. These were the kind of shows my parents would turn the set off for, even if they had to take their children along with them to see them.

So how did Beyond a Reasonable Doubt compare to the likes of those? As you noted, RKO was a struggling studio just a year away from selling its Burbank properities to Desilu Productions, and Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine were well past the peak of their popularity. Andrews, a brooding, leading man type, was 10 years from having done The Best Years of Our Lives and 12 years from his star-making performance in Laura. If he looked a little tired, it fit in with the role, but his drinking problems were starting to erode his ability to perform, something that would be all the more apparent when he made Night of the Demon the following year. Joan Fontaine was still a beautiful woman and had given what are recognized now as three of the most extraordinary performances ever by an actress, in Rebecca, The Constant Nymph, and Letter from an Unknown Woman, but her career had languished under her contract with David O. Selznick, she was at a sensitive age, and, besides, she simply wasn’t as ambitious as her sister, Olivia de Havilland, or she would never have appeared in such claptrap as this. The director, Fritz Lang, was an acknowledged master, but his approach had become increasingly detached, not only from the subject matter of his last American pictures but, far worse, from what the public wanted to see.

The film itself was rather naïve and not nearly as daring as it pretended to be. Far from demonstrating that an innocent man could be convicted of murder, all it really showed was that a man could be convicted on the basis of incriminating evidence, however it was obtained. If its makers intended to suggest that this was what the criminal justice system was doing, manufacturing evidence to gain convictions, regardless of guilt or innocense, then the film would have carried some real weight and probably gained a great deal of notoriety. If they just wanted to show that a man could be framed for a crime, then they were doing no more than what dozens of other melodramas had done over the years. In the end, I don’t think Lang or anyone else involved in this film had any social concerns in mind or anything more than setting up that twist ending, where the Andrews character accidently reveals that he had taken advantage of the subterfuge to commit a real murder.

No, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt wasn’t nearly special enough to tempt my parents for a night out. A few years before, it might have been enough for an evening’s entertainment. Now there was an alternative. Probably we just put some popcorn in a pot on the stove and tuned in Gunsmoke that evening.


7:48 AM  
Blogger citizenkanne said...

The advertising for this movie and "While the City Sleeps" reminds me of something from Harvey Kurtzman's "Mad" in it's comic book days. "If you think what KIDS are reading is bad, look at what ADULTS are reading!!"

10:59 AM  

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