The City as it Was
Embalmed and dissected in its Criterion collector’s edition packaging, The Naked City survives as a police procedural touchstone and New York City time capsule. It’s a fascinating movie with a lousy story—Irish Lt. Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and clean cut green horn Jimmy Halloran (Dan Taylor) investigate the death of a blond—that doesn’t encourage much scrutinizing. But it’s driven by a unique vision from director Jules Dassin and producer and narrator Mark Hellinger of a city as intricate community, churning out a broadsheet’s worth of scandal and schmaltz. Containing elements of Jimmy Breslin, Roberto Rossellini, and Jane Jacobs, this stylistic and thematic conception punches through the story’s shortcomings.
Technically, the film takes radio serial techniques (expository dialogue, heavy narration, unrealistic street dialogue and sound effects) and adds the repetitive structures, meticulous legwork, and melting pot locations that would become a staple of television crime-solvers like Law & Order. Initially, Muldoon grills boyfriend and prime suspect Frank Niles (Howard Duff) and his associates, but can’t get anything to stick. So Halloran and some other detectives trail Niles and sniff out clues up and down Manhattan, uncovering a criminal web that leads to the murderer and closure. The closing lines, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them”, hint at more episodes to come.
Television may be its legacy, but The Naked City‘s visual power comes from its stylized documentary shots and on-location shooting by William Daniels. The action is framed, through inter-scene montage and Hellinger’s sardonic narration, within the course of the city’s perpetual cycle: the morning rush, the evening rush, the nighttime debauchery, and the early morning light. Dassin lingers over cutaways and establishing shots of the bustling post-war metropolis. Chasing leads and tracking down suspects, Halloran travels from his Astoria home to a Lower East Side soda shop, Midtown beauty salon, and Brooklyn wrestling gym.
The three commentators featured on the Criterion set—NYU professor Dana Polan, architect James Sanders, and essayist / historian Luc Sante—perpetually drift back to their enthusiasm for this documentary portrait, betraying their pedestrian New Yorker’s street-by-street familiarity and bashful love of the hard boiled myths. Sante, in his liner notes essay “New York Plays Itself” notes “the children’s games, the pushcart vendors, the crowds of rubberneckers” and “El trains rattling overhead in Manhattan, pretzel vendors displaying their wares on sticks, laborers going about their trade.”
What can easily be overlooked is the way in which the portrait of the city melds with the crime investigation at the heart of the narrative. Polan, in the most illuminating commentary, explores the film’s least interestingly conceived portions, when Muldoon and Halloran work on the case from the confines of the precinct house. It’s not clear whether this was done on location or on a set, but the interiors here have the barely put together look of a cheap studio and they are mostly shot long from one point of view, reinforcing the sensation of a nonexistent fourth wall. The dialogue is fairly pedestrian; they discuss the case and Dassin seems to relish in aimless, frustrated talk when they can’t find any leads. Muldoon counsels, “That’s the way you run a case lad, step by step.” The actors’ bodies are all self-consciously angled towards the audience, as in an infomercial demonstration.
Polan ties these scenes into the film’s overall depiction of the policeman and detectives as anonymous and interchangeable but integral components of the city’s infrastructure. The pedestrian nature of their work reinforces its normality; the unromantic but essential legwork pays tribute to the thanklessly repetitive duties of the average worker. Polan says that this was a particularly important message and concern in a stabilizing post-World War II America. The city is a complex organism and everybody plays an essential role. The narrator says, “There is a pulse to a city and it never stops beating.”
Crime is also a normal part of the flow, the creating and solving of crimes yet another push-pull cycle. Over a shot of a dead body floating in the harbor the narrator comments, “Just routine, the morgue will take care of it.” The criminal has their role, as specialized and anonymous as any other. When being chased by cops, the murderer Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia) shouts, “This is a great big beautiful city. Try and find me.”
The overall documentary narrative style was inspired by Italian neorealism but the high contrast, exploitative imagery is based on the film’s most obvious and cited source, the photography in Weegee’s book The Naked City. Correspondingly, the film is like a documentary as interpreted by the New York Post. Sante also points out the structural similarities to rag journalism: “Its depiction of the city as a huge ongoing narrative spotlighted with vignettes is a trope that descends from tabloid philosophy.”
The prime creative force behind this approach seems to have been Hellinger, a former newspaper columnist and B-noir producer. In a letter to Dassin, reprinted in the DVD booklet, he emphasizes “the narrator or the spectator angle” and “newsreel effect”. The audience watches the story as a street voyeur, encouraged by the omniscient voiceover that prods the characters and the crowds: “eat and run buddy”, “you must of have had a hard day”. The distancing effect is further encouraged by Hellinger reading the credits, announcing that he’s about to tell one story of many, and then explaining how he’s telling that story as it unfolds.
Watching the film today the audience is now a historical voyeur. I nearly choked at a shot showing children casually playing on the walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s also singled out by Polan, Sanders, and Sante—the vision is a far cry from the dirty industrial thoroughfare of today. Sanders says that the film captures what was “virtually the last year of existence” of an active social street life, particularly as photographed on the Lower East Side, that was soon distracted by the insular pleasures of television. New York instead chose watch to itself on I Love Lucy, The Goldbergs, and the spin-off of The Naked City.
The narrator says, “This is the city as it is.” The Naked City was not a big critical or commercial success at the time of its release. It received some reevaluation by critics in the context of the film noir and crime movie genres in which Dassin worked. It has and will continue to further shift and morph in audience perception, rooted and clinging to its place and time. Sanders says that what was then considered a graphic depiction of street life now looks like an affectionate paean to an orderly and vibrant community. Sante says, “Such things are now vanished and thus exotic.”