Well, let's begin our review this way. It's one o'clock in the morning on a chilly March night, and Appellate Judge James A. Stewart sits down at his computer to type...
"There are eight million stories in the naked city."
"It's a bit different from most films you've ever seen," producer Mark Hellinger tells the audience in narration during the first moments of The Naked City. "This is a story of a number of people, and a story also of the city itself. It was not filmed in a studio." In 1948, when movie studios still maintained massive backlots, the location filming done in Hellinger's movie was a rarity.
Hellinger's inspiration came from a book called Naked City, which collected the work of a tabloid photographer known as Weegee, according to Luc Sante's essay in the booklet accompanying this disc. Like the photo book by Weegee (after Ouija board), Hellinger's movie attempts to capture New York City "as it is—hot summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people." Screenwriter Malvin Wald, who'd worked on military documentaries during World War II, wanted to combine the documentary style with a mystery story. Wald's story was inspired by the famous Dorothy King murder case in the 1920s, with "bits and pieces" from other real-life police cases mixed in, as he notes in his commentary.
The movie also showcases director Jules Dassin (Rififi, Topkapi), later nominated for two Oscars for Never on Sunday. In the United States, Dassin was a B-movie director, but he became known for the French film Rififi, the film that gave moviegoers the definitive portrait of criminals pulling off a heist. "It's a scene you've seen before (shameless imitators have been cannibalizing it for decades), but you will never see it so purely, respectfully done as here," says Jamie Hook in the Criterion Collection essay on Rififi.
The same could be said for Dassin's work in The Naked City. Doing location shooting in an era when movies relied on the backlot, Dassin had to learn a lot of tricks, as he tells us in an interview on this DVD. "Sometimes you'd come to the location and there were truly hundreds of people," he said. On some occasions, the cameramen worked from portable newsstands or florist kiosks. Dassin often relied on a provocative street speaker to distract large crowds, ironic since he later was blacklisted, leaving the United States for Europe. Dassin himself points out that The House on 92nd Street from 1945 was an influence on his work here, as was the Italian neo-realistic style that's often mentioned. Architect James Sanders, in an interview on the DVD, points out that Dassin and Hellinger captured "one of the last years before television," reminding us that in just a year or two after the movie was made, all those teeming masses you see would be heading inside to watch Ed Sullivan. Thus, the movie's also a portrait of the New York City of long ago, adding a new historical dimension to its appeal.
If you've ever watched a chase film or a police procedural, much about it will be familiar. Still, it was an underappreciated cinematic landmark when it arrived in 1948. Its impact is recognized in The Naked City: Criterion Collection.
Facts of the Case
"Well, let's begin our story this way. It's one o'clock in the morning on a hot summer night …"
As producer Mark Hellinger introduces viewers to New York at night in his narration, we see some deserted places, but others teeming with life. There's always an all-night DJ, a factory worker, or a janitor toiling late into the night in the city that never sleeps.
There's also trouble, in the form of two men drowning a woman in her own bathtub. One of them shows remorse, falling off the wagon. "I've done a lot of things, but I've never killed nobody. I'm going to stay drunk a long time," he says. He also falls into the East River, given a little push by his partner in murder.
The next morning, the woman's maid finds the body. Turns out that the murdered woman is dress shop model Jean Dexter. The investigating officers, Lt. Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way) and Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor, Song of the Thin Man), are convinced that her gentleman friend Frank Niles (Howard Duff, radio's Sam Spade) is involved, especially when they find out that he lied about his engagement to Ruth (Dorothy Hart, Larceny).
The Naked City follows Muldoon and Halloran around the city as they do the interrogation, legwork, and reasoning that will crack the case.
The story, about two cops solving a murder under the harsh glare of the New York tabloids, will seem familiar to Law & Order fans. Here, that "ripped from the headlines" feel is hit home by scenes in a train car, showing everyone reading and commenting on the sensational story. The circus-like music that plays here and there also emphasizes the media circus aspects of the case.
At its heart, The Naked City is a standard cops-and-robbers tale, with Barry Fitzgerald playing Lt. Dan Muldoon as a colorful veteran detective who's full of sharp quips ("I haven't had a hard day's work since yesterday") delivered with a brogue and Don Taylor playing his bright young partner Jimmy Halloran with a more just-the-facts style. The two leads have the easy chemistry you'll find in a modern buddy movie or cop show (TV got the idea in the late 1950s and did a Naked City series). You get plenty of melodrama as the two officers confront suspects and questions are answered with tears and shouting. However, Jules Dassin and Mark Hellinger do a heckuva job of bringing that tale to life.
The artistic elements are heaviest in the beginning, as Hellinger explains his concept. The movie uses a baby's cry to symbolize the start of a day, for example. Once the story starts to unfold, the location shooting develops a mostly natural rhythm that's beautiful. Halloran goes into real shops to ask questions and walks down real busy city streets as he investigates the case. It may seem unusual at times when Muldoon takes the murdered woman's parents outside for questioning against the skyline at sunset or Halloran goes up a building under construction in an open elevator to ask a few questions, but it looks great. When they find their killer, there's a final chase on the Williamsburg Bridge, the camera pursuing the suspect and the cops from every angle, that'll take your breath away. Dassin's direction and William Daniels's cinematography help shape a fascinating snapshot of 1940s New York City.
Hellinger's narration is over the top, to say the least, as he talks to the audience and the characters, and mimics the characters' internal monologues. While watching, I recalled a few omniscient (and obnoxious) narrator parodies from Pink Panther cartoons that rip this style to shreds. This aspect of the movie hasn't held up as well as others and provides a few unintentional laughs, but it still has its moments.
Criterion's restored high-definition digital transfer is mostly seamless, though I noticed a couple of lines at one point. The stark black-and-white images really stand out here. The sound's mono, but it captures the ambient noise of New York City well.
As with all Criterion releases, you'll find plenty of extras to help put the movie into context. There's a 2004 session with Jules Dassin, who is interviewed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of a Rififi screening. The 40-minute discussion is hard to get into at first because of the poor audio and video quality, but if you stick with it, you'll find out about Dassin's experience with blacklisting, his early influences, and his actress wife Melina Mercouri. Two other interviews are featured: architect James Sanders talks about this "first real view of the postwar city" and New York University film historian Dana Polan talks about the "reassuring" worldview of the police procedural. The three interviews run more than 90 minutes, just shy of the movie's running time.
Screenwriter Malvin Wald, in his commentary, talks—justifiably—about the importance of The Naked City; his remarks are informative and engaging. Once or twice, though, a remark like "Here we have a very melodramatic situation" shines light on the fact that, well, here we have a very melodramatic situation. Despite the location shooting, parallels to actual cases, and research into real-life police procedures, the movie turns into a melodrama in the last reel. It's great stuff, but the movie's efforts at realism weaken toward the end as the denouement becomes more cinematic.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you've heard the tagline, you've seen this movie—even if you haven't actually seen it. There may be eight million stories in the naked city, but there are only so many of them that can be done as police procedurals.
If you like police procedurals or want a glimpse of city life in the days before television, you'll want to check this one out. The police plot seems predictable after you've seen eight million copies. What's surprising is that the final chase scene is still impressive, despite its age and familiarity.
Not guilty. There are eleven thousand DVD reviews in the naked Web site. This has been one of them.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Screenwriter Malvin Wald
Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.