|The Naked City (1948)
Run time: Approved | 96 min | Crime, Drama, Film-Noir
Director: Jules Dassin
Writers: Albert Maltz, Malvin Wald
Stars: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart
The “City” is the real star here, in this trendsetting crime drama produced on the streets of N.Y.C. Fitzgerald and his cops are tops. This was the inspiration for a long running T.V. series of the same name.
There are two styles of Film Noir. Fueled by writers like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, the first style emerged in the 1940s and was characterized by a cynical, often witty tone; anti-heroes, dangerous women, and assorted criminal elements; and complex plots that emphasized betrayal and moral ambiguity. It was also photographed in a remarkable visual style that combined glossy production values with atmospheric emphasis on light and shadow–and films like THE MALTESE FALCON, THIS GUN FOR HIRE, MILDRED PIERCE, THE BLUE DAHLIA, and DOUBLE INDEMNITY remain great classics of their kind.
But after World War II public taste began to change. Things that could only be hinted at in earlier films could now be more directly stated, and as audiences clamored for a more gritty realism the glossy sophistication of 1940s Noir fell out of fashion. The result was a new style of Noir–photographed in a grainier way, more direct, more brutal, and even less sympathetic to its characters. And the 1948 THE NAKED CITY was among the first to turn the tide. The sophisticated gumshoe, slinky gun moll, and glossy production values were gone; this film felt more like something you might read in a particularly lurid "true detective" tabloid.
In an era when most films were shot on Hollywood backlots, THE NAKED CITY was actually filmed in New York–and while filmmakers could film with hidden cameras sound technology of the day posed a problem. But producer Mark Hellinger turned the problem into an asset: the film would be narrated, adding to the documentary-like style of the cinematography and story. (Hellinger performed the narrative himself, and his sharp delivery is extremely effective.) The story itself reads very much like a police report, following NYPD detectives as they seek to solve a dress model’s murder.
For 1948 it was innovative stuff-but like many innovative films it falters a bit in comparison to later films that improved upon the idea. The direct nature of the plot feels slightly too direct, slightly too simple. The same is true of the performances, which have a slightly flat feel, and although Barry Fitzgerald gives a sterling performance he is very much a Hollywood actor whose style seems slightly out of step alongside the deadpan style of the overall cast. Even so, the pace and drive of the film have tremendous interest, and while you might find yourself criticizing certain aspects you’ll still be locked into the movie right to the very end. Particularly recommended for Film Noir addicts, who will be fascinated to see the turning point in the style.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
There are 8 Million Stories in the Naked City. This is the one that started it all. And what a start it was. While "The Naked City" is considered "Film-Noir" by many who have seen it, in truth it is simply a routine detective story. What makes the film as great as it is(and it is a great film)is the Oscar winning photography by William Daniels who shot the film not in a studio but on the streets and in the buildings of "The Naked City", New York City.
From the very opening of the film when Producer-Narrator Mark Hellinger introduces himself and tells you that this film "is quite different from anything you’ve ever seen", the viewer is hooked. And it is not by the story but by the city.
Hellinger’s cast did not consist of any major players. Barry Fitzgerald, stars as Lieutenant Muldoon, the head of the Homicide Squad, Don Taylor is Jimmy Halloran, Muldoon"s "leg work" man. Howard Duff is the slimy Niles and Dorothy Hart, a beautiful actress who should have gone on to bigger and better things, was a model. They were all perfect. Ted De Corsia in his first screen role, played Willie Garzah the killer. His death scene at the top of the Williamsburg Bridge is memorable. He nearly steals the picture but not from the actors, but from the city who is the real "star" of the film.
Hellinger was formerly a New York Newspaper man. He started his Hollywood career as a screenwriter and among his successes was the 1939 Bogart-Cagney classic, "The Roaring Twenties" another film about New York. The city was very personal to him.
The sad part of the film is the tragedy of some of the major participants. Hellinger died of a heart attach shortly after the release. He was only 44.
Albert Maltz who co-wrote the screenplay was blacklisted as being one of the Hollywood 10, and didn’t work for decades. Jules Dassin the director fled to Europe because of threats of blacklisting. He later made the classic "Rififi" and Oscar winners, "Topkapi" and "Never On Sunday". We can only wonder what might have been had this association continued.
What we do know is that "The Naked City" still lives on. You can see it in nearly every episode of the TV his "Law & Order". And as long as those skyscrapers of New York stand, there will always be a "Naked City"
THE NAKED CITY is like watching a time capsule unfold of New York City in the late '40s–the cars, the subways, the bridges, the people bustling along busy streets totally unaware of filming (scenes were shot from cars with tinted windows and two-way mirrors), and at the center of it all is a rather routine detective story. But the difference is the style that director Jules Dassin gets out of his material, giving the drama a chance to build up the proper tension before the final shootout on city streets and bridges.
BARRY FITZGERALD is the detective with the very helpful sidekick DON TAYLOR, a young police officer from Queens who helps him track down the man responsible for the death of a pretty blonde in what the tabloids called "The Bathtub Murder". Both men are excellent as they follow a batch of clues to get to the bottom of the crime. HOWARD DUFF is also excellent as a man mixed up in the robberies, with DOROTHY HART as his unsuspecting sweetheart.
TED DeCORSIA, making his film debut, is the athletic villain, working out in his small apartment when detective Taylor finds him–but soon making his escape which leads to the film's most breathtaking moments of a dazzling chase that fills the last ten minutes with high tension suspense.
The crime itself is not that interesting, but the style used to tell the tale (with a voice-over narration telling us at the conclusion that this is just one story in a city of millions) is what makes it far superior to most detective stories. That and the fact that New York City is given the spotlight for location photography that really hits the mark.
This is a real original and just about everybody involved knows it. A documentary style police drama with real New York locations — "Nothing was shot in a studio!" And it does capture New York City, circa 1947, entering a late florescent age. Many of the shots were "stolen," taken on real streets from a van with tinted windows, with only the principal actors knowing that a movie was being made.
White collar workers all wear suits and ties. There is a sidewalk salesman hawking neckties. An ice man with those over-sized calipers. A milkman driving a horse and wagon. A Kosher Deli. Little girls playing jump rope — "Out goes the doctor, out goes the nurse, out goes the lady with the alligator purse." Kids on swings. People reading newspapers over someone else's shoulder while jolting along on the subway. A shootout on a tower of the Williamsberg Bridge. A blind man and his dog. Stillman's Gym with two professional wrestlers being coached in how to register pain. Two girls gawking at a wedding dress in a shop window and mooning over "Frankie." Ethnic people — Italians, Irish, Jewish, Polish. Accents — "A boxer-fighter maybe? What do I know?" "Eh, bene, bene — encore." Scrubby walnut trees in brick-strewn vacant lots. Working class accents mostly, including that of the narrator, Mark Hellinger. Nobody is black or Puerto Rican. The taxi drivers speak English. No bums or dopers. It's all here, or rather it was all there.
Now, of course, it's all a little familiar because we've gotten used to location shooting and wince when shots are obviously studio made. But this was new at the time and is still enjoyable to watch.
The performances are adequate. Don Taylor is bland and doesn't have any accent but he's easy to identify with, at least for me, because he's so pleasant and handsome. Barry Fitzgerald has an oddly creased face and crudely shaped cranium. His smile is almost a mile wide, a caricature of itself, a lovable guy. Howard Duff is — well, Howard Duff, a liar and a thief. Ted deCorsia is great. We first meet him working out in his shabby apartment, flexing and admiring himself in front of the mirror, his body pale and flabby, a shock of coarse black hair over his sweating forehead. And that voice, like a coffee grinder. And check out the list of supporting actors. Wow. Arthur O'Connell, Nehemia Persoff, James Gregory, inter alia.
The story itself isn't very much. Rather routine. Could have been a good radio drama of the sort that were popular at the time — "Suspense" or "The Whistler" or "Inner Sanctum." And the narrator's voice-over sometimes creaks at the joints as it strains for hard-boiled sonority — "Yesterday she was just another pretty face. This morning she's the marmalade on everybody's toast." (That line kills me.)
And, I have to admit, that it paints a kind of pretty picture of police procedures. Barry Fitzgerald in particular is folksy, humorous, and compassionate. I kept waiting for him to remove his pipe and mutter, "Ego te absolvo." The police offices look too CLEAN. There are no dents in the wall from suspects having their heads slammed against it. Every surface seems too recently to have been painted. Suspects who shout angrily at their police interrogators and are obviously lying are just politely reasoned with.
In a neat little touch, the cops are examining the scene of the crime and have found a few stray long hairs. From behind, Fitzgerald leans over the rather mopey middle-aged neighbor on the couch an compares the hair sample to hers. She looks around in surprise. "Er, don't mind me," says Fitzgerald, "I was only admiring your lovely hair." The neighbor clutches her hands together with delight and gazes up at him with an adoring dimpled smile. Fitzgerald pauses a moment, clears his throat, and hurries away.
Well, okay. This might have been "gritty" at the time but now it's just an interesting picture, a little glossy maybe, but a lot of fun, and ahead of its time with that location shooting by Daniels.