“Marketing The Sleeping City to The City That Never Sleeps” by Kurt Brokaw

The Sleeping City, like so many crime dramas that labored away in the era, won’t make most noir fans’ top ten lists. But its marketing was reflective of its time, more than most noirs that started out trying to hold their theater marquees alone and ended up as the underside of drive-in double bills….

The Sleeping City is a stalwart, B-side 1950 film noir directed in workmanlike style by the venerable George Sherman. The picture’s most distinguishing feature is that it was shot entirely on location at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital. Its concept is a ‘Confidential Squad’ NYPD detective (Richard Conte) assigned to ferret out drug dealing in a major New York medical center.

Under pressure from New York mayor William O’Dwyer, Universal inserted an opening sequence with Conte introducing himself as the lead actor, paying tribute to Bellevue’s 1300 doctors and 1100 nurses. Conte, talking directly to us, makes sure we understand the story we’re about to see is fictional, and “doesn’t take place in Bellevue or New York City.” Then he yaks on about how cooperative the entire hospital staff was with the studio’s cast and crew.

This is a less-than-gripping intro to a movie that stays modestly interesting (especially if you’re intrigued to see what Bellevue looked and felt like more than half a century ago). The finale is vigorous and jittery, with Conte pursuing the bad guy through Bellevue’s vast network of basement heating and plumbing, clear up to the rooftop, overlooking the East River.

These scenes recall Ted de Corsia trapped by police in the girders of the Williamsburg Bridge in ’48 in The Naked City, as well as Richard Basehart cornered in Los Angeles’ storm drains in He Walked by Night, also in ’48. They prefigure Edmond O’Brien being chased under Hoover Dam in 711 Ocean Drive in 1950, then dying once more in a hail of bullets on the front lawn of his LA suburban home in Shield for Murder four years later. Film noir was shedding its tight-in studio allure and chiaroscuro lighting, moving crime into real-life locations. (The pinnacles of noir location shoots in the ‘50s were The Thief, with Ray Milland’s Commie spy climbing ladders up and into the sky-high crow’s nest of the Empire State Building, and trampy Marilyn Monroe dying for her art in Niagara, in the Carillon Bell Tower just down the block from the famous Falls.)

The two 11”x14” lobby title cards shown here from The Sleeping City demonstrate how this little movie was astutely positioned in its 1950 debut, and again in its 1956 re-release. The magic happens in the merchandising. The cards look alike but they’re studded with visual and copy differences—some small, some not so small—that show the gulf between lurid noir marketing locked in a post-War era heavily influenced by pulp magazines, and more modernized movie packaging. Crime pulps had been largely replaced by women’s service magazines by the mid-50s. Posters and lobby cards were tilting toward a ‘cooler,’ more cosmetized world of tv-oriented neo-noir.

1956 rerelease

It’s revealing to compare and contrast the two cards and their respective eras:

The theme line “When THE NAKED CITY dims her lights…all the passions of the night awake!” reverses itself in the re-release version, also changing its all-caps pop-up. It adds a subhead, “The story of a great police department’s Confidential Squad” to shift attention away from Bellevue and toward the NYPD.

The type face of The Sleeping City uses two color hues in the original poster, suggesting a day-into-night transitional danger, and replaces that with a more neutral, mostly one color face in the reissue. Its block letters can be viewed as a subtle allusion to the city’s growing density, but hardly its “passions of the night.”

Note the darkened mid-height tenements behind the title in the original, again trading off the same studio’s Naked City noir. All those sleepy buildings are removed in the reissue. Conte still has his gun drawn, upper left, but in the later poster he’s no longer hanging from a ladder on the building.

The illustrated scene of a lone killer being gunned down by a slew of police is the same in both cards, but this is not what happens in the movie. Conte takes down the killer single-handed on the rooftop. The false card idea communicates more persuasively in the reissue with its “Confidential Squad” add-on.

Coleen Gray is pictured lower right with Conte in both cards, but there’s a sublet difference: In 1950, Gray had two noir roles working for her – as Vic Mature’s wife in Kiss of Death and as the better remembered carny cutie in Nightmare Alley. Still, Conte in his hat is more prominent in the 1950 card. But by ’56, Gray had registered as the flawed ward nurse webbed into the drug dealings in The Sleeping City, and she counted in both Kansas City Confidential and in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. In the reissue card, she gets more space, on the left of Conte, directly next to her name.

Alex Nicol, a handsome newcomer at Universal being groomed for second leads and western villains, had his name added under Conte and Gray in the reissue, which now displays their three names more dramatically in a framed box. The water tower on the adjoining apartment building, which is hidden behind the “I” in the 1950 poster, moves in front of (and touching) the “L” in the reissue. So does Conte’s hand, as well as the model’s legs, skirt and arm, draped over several letters. It’s the actors now, not the darkened buildings, that help define the picture’s title. These are sophisticated bits of art direction that, in their way, helped reposition the picture more attractively to a more sophisticated audience.

The Sleeping City, like so many crime dramas that labored away in the era, won’t make most noir fans’ top ten lists. But its marketing was reflective of its time, more than most noirs that started out trying to hold their theater marquees alone and ended up as the underside of drive-in double bills. (There are posters of The Sleeping City getting only 30% of the poster space under Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in Hemingway’s The Killers in their double feature reissue.) The Sleeping City looked like it would stay a lost noir forever, not even released in VHS, but it finally turned up on DVD as a part of Universal’s Vault Collection. It’s a one-off to be fondly remembered as much for its stylish ads as for its content.

Kurt Brokaw is Senior Film Critic of The Independent. His memoir, The Paperback Guy, was published in 2020.

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