The Naked City (1948)


Jules Dassin's The Naked City

There may be eight million stories
in The Naked City...
but the first one deserves a second look.

Originally published at
Blogcritics in my Movie Memory Check Feature.

Before the popular American crime series spinoff took to the airwaves in 1958 revealing five years worth of the eight million stories of The Naked City, New York columnist turned film noir producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin told one single unforgettable tale with their 1948 cinematic release.
Crisply restored to its original full screen black and white glory in a worthwhile Criterion Collection release, the DVD of The Naked City also includes rare footage of Dassin, scholarly interviews by professionals in the fields of architecture and post World War II cinema, a screenwriter commentary track, among others. However, the main highlight is the film itself, narrated by the late Hellinger (whom Wikipedia reported died suddenly after attending the film’s preview) and based on an original screenplay by Malvin Wald and Albert Maltz (one of the original Hollywood 10, who like director Dassin was blacklisted by the HUAC). In an opening that must’ve been quite shocking to the typical theatergoer of the late 1940s, Dassin’s City breaks free from traditional film noir structure from its audacious beginning you can witness below.
The Naked City: The Beginning

While narration is nothing new — save for the way it’s used in this film — spoken credits are rare throughout our cinematic history and I can only recall two distinct examples, namely Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (which fits in with a future where the written word is dangerous) and Robert Altman’s experimental M*A*S*H. However, it’s the way this same introduction by Hellinger as himself and not a character in the film commenting on the action (such as Morgan Freeman’s postmodern narration of Million Dollar Baby or the countless examples of traditional film noir) continues throughout that subconsciously sets the style of Dassin’s film apart on an auditory level before we even take the cinematography into consideration. That being said, the narration does grow tiresome, especially after the twenty minute mark when it grates on our nerves as Hellinger voices not only the thoughts of passersby but main characters and comments on every action as a God-like figure suitable to the opening “bird’s eye” cinematic view which seems to indicate that he’s somehow looking down on everything.
But once we begin to focus less on Hellinger’s play-by-play, it’s easy to get lost in the vivid look of the film. Like most vintage noirs, it begins at night with the first of two deaths but startlingly, instead of overwhelming the lens with rain-soaked streets, the endless fog of cigarette smoke, and shadows lurking in dark alleyways, a bulk of The Naked City takes place in the daylight. Instead of the genre’s overreliance on the “rack focus” as the camera fixates on a gun, then the finger on the trigger, then the person it’s aimed at, everything in The Naked City looks like photographs that have been pulled from preserved copies of The New York Times or from the pages of Life magazine. And after just ten minutes, it’s easy to see why the film earned Oscars for not only its gifted cinematographer William Daniels but also the painstaking editing by Paul Weatherwax.
Still, typical of the genre, there’s a brutal crime at hand — namely, the death of beautiful 26-year-old, fast-living dress model Jean Dexter, but straying from the norm, this time around it’s the cops and not the crooks we follow on our journey. Therefore, not conventionally noir, Naked City is best labeled as NYU professor and author Dana Polan notes on the DVD, an early example of the type of “police procedural” filmmaking, or as I view it, a far more sophisticated example of the type of stories we see every night on television whether it’s C.S.I. or Law and Order.
Essentially after the early violence, the film begins “after noir ends,” as Polan noted, and it’s framed by its “crime fighting” emphasis, which the professor stated was reassuring to those living in a post-war America and questioning just what would follow their “last great adventure.” Instead of the vagueness and existential questioning of Humphrey Bogart’s Raymond Chandler character Philip Marlowe and most of noir, Polan argued that Naked City works on a subconsciously theoretical level as proof that “there is order to the universe,” by reaffirming the positive value of life lived as a bland “organizational man.”
In fact it’s what he calls the “pioneer go-getter spirit,” that propels our two lead detectives as they strive to solve the case. Predicting the popular buddy movie set-up of an older, wiser man bordering on retirement paired with the naïve rookie, we’re introduced to the 26-year-old family man, the new detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), who up until three months earlier, had been working a beat in the Bronx. A native walker since his days in the war, Halloran isn’t afraid to waste a little shoe leather by pounding the pavement and riding the bus, chasing down every possible lead he comes across.
Yet, whereas Halloran’s ambition has him searching in places his mentor figures will lead to dead ends, it’s this same mentor — the endearingly eccentric Detective Lieutenant Danny Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerlad) — who threatens to steal the film away from even the cinematographer himself. Fond of belting out Irish ditties with zero prompting and compulsively clad — as all good guys are — in a white hat when he takes to the street, Fitzgerald’s Muldoon reminded me of a cross between a leprechaun and Toby Jones as Truman Capote in Infamous.
However, while he may greet new strangers with a smile and a wink, his thirty-eight years of experience make him extremely tough when he wants to be as he and Halloran track down Dexter’s “J.P. McGillicuddy.” Muldoon’s name for an unknown suspect in any given case, this time around the cops fear there could be at least two "McGillicuddys" and as usual, an increasingly strange cast of shady, secretive characters are introduced, including “the biggest and most willing liar” Muldoon has ever met, merchandising consultant Frank Niles (Howard Duff).
While it’s quickly obvious that Niles may be hiding his true relationship with the deceased Dexter from his fiancé, Muldoon doubts he’s the real guy responsible, as other mystery men begin coming out of the woodwork via testimony and the cops struggle to understand just how stolen jewelry, fancy men’s pajamas, a wrestler who plays a harmonica, fake confessions, middle men, and a stranger called “Henderson” all fit into the equation. Predictably, this leads to an ultimate showdown but instead of a simple gunfight or mini-chase, Dassin and his crew pull out all the stops in one of the most exciting chases I’ve ever witnessed, shot through the real streets of New York City, as characters dart in and out of several locations to track down one particular suspect named Garzah (Ted de Corsia).
The Naked City: Garzah the Fugitive

Just watching this roughly six minute clip, it’s obvious to see the way this film influenced so many that would follow not just obvious works of homage like The Fugitive but even in more subtle ways in Sweet Smell of Success and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (and indeed at one point, Dassin had been an apprentice of the master of suspense). Not to mention, the realism employed would no doubt have echoed throughout the career of Stanley Kubrick ( especially in The Killing) who was “sometimes present on the set taking photographs for Look Magazine.” Dassin’s later work made in France post-blacklist, including Rififi and Topkapi, is often cited by countless critics as influential in the heist genre in everything from Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven series to Mission Impossible and The Thomas Crown Affair.
But in the end, what’s most impressive about not just this scene in general but the film itself is — unlike Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s mostly New York filmed Technicolor musical On the Town made just one year later — is that The Naked City was, as Hellinger notes in the introduction, filmed entirely in New York. Filled with a dense population and an authenticity you can’t duplicate, it’s easy to see just in the clip alone how Dassin’s decision to take filmmaking to the streets inspired both Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee to do the same with Taxi Driver and Do the Right Thing respectively.
Fittingly, as the author and architectural expert James Sanders notes on the DVD, shooting in New York was popular around the turn of the century with the dawn of filmmaking but when sound was introduced it was far too noisy to film in the streets. After decades of studio filmed versions of the “dream” or “mythic” versions of New York offered by Hollywood, as Sanders shares, the production and subsequent release of Naked City was a “watershed” event. An American version of an Italian neorealist film that found directors overseas going out into their own Open City with cameras in hand, Dassin’s production did involve some hiccups along the way, including accidents and budgetary problems. But, as Sanders declares, in utilizing a whopping one hundred and seven actual locations, the crew “really went everywhere in every sense of the word,” filming in places they never would have been allowed had it not been for Hellinger’s connections.

And certainly, The Naked City can be viewed on a purely aesthetic level (and honestly sometimes I did wish I could mute out Hellinger’s Boy Scout-like narration of every single moment), to get figuratively knocked out by the city that never sleeps. However, all in all it’s the film itself that’s most compelling in its audacity — even by today’s standards — that not only inspired a five year series to attempt to tell the rest of those eight million stories of New York but was also selected by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry last year for preservation as a cinematic work that is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Of course, it also helps that it’s just phenomenally entertaining as well and I’ll leave you with the film’s nearly spoiler free wrap-up for proof.
The Naked City: Conclusion