[4 December 2013]
Naked City was a groundbreaking police drama that ran from 1958 to 1962, comprising half-hour episodes in its first season before expanding to 60-minute installments for the last three. What made the series “groundbreaking” was the show’s anthology style, which minimized the importance of ongoing characters in favor of self-contained stories featuring a who’s-who of the era’s outstanding television and film actors – many of whom were just starting their careers. Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jon Voight and Suzanne Phleshette all make appearances in this series, as do dozens of others—Dennis Hopper, Jean Stapleton, Jack Klugman, William Shatner, and Alan Alda among them.
This parade of fine character actors and actresses would be meaningless, though, were it not put in the service of good writing and interesting plots. Happily, both elements are present throughout the series. This massive DVD set, which contains 29 discs and all 138 episodes from the show’s four seasons, contains roughly 100 hours of programming. With a nicely spruced up black-and-white picture and better sound quality than most TV sets were capable of transmitting at the time, this box set looks and sounds fantastic. With any luck will bring the show a new, appreciative audience.
The stories are varied in tone and treatment. In an episode from the first season, a young police officer is wracked with guilt when he fatally shoots a felon. Most shows would focus on the commission of the crime, then cut to black soon after the death—the plot being resolved, justice being served and all—but in Naked City, the shooting is where the story begins. A longer episode from Season Four focuses on a down-on-his-luck barber who impersonates a cop, with dire results. Again, this episode begins with a bang, as a holdup is interrupted and the criminal apprehended, but these events serve as the launching point, not the resolution.
Season One is the least satisfying, as the short format often leaves stories feeling a bit rushed. On the other hand, the generally no-name cast (featuring series regulars Harry Bellaver, Horace McMahon, Paul Burke and John McIntire) serves to reinforce the stories’ everyday feel; the viewer can watch, say, Eugenie Leontovich as a grieving mother and simply be caught up in her excellent performance, rather than playing an ongoing game of “spot the guest star”.
Most casual viewers will naturally be curious about the big names, and for the most part they don’t disappoint. Season One includes guest shots from Jack Klugman and Diane Ladd, but it’s Season Two that really opens the floodgates. Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Peter Falk and Suzanne Pleshette all step into the spotlight, among many others. Hoffman’s first acting role is a nicely nuanced performance in “Sweet Prince of Delancey Street”, a Roshamon-like tale that plays with multiple perspectives and competing points of view in its reconstruction of a tragic burglary gone wrong. Hoffman would return for a few moments in the series’ final episode, “Barefoot on a Bed of Coals” in a minor role. More interesting in that episode is the contribution of Zohra Lampert, who would go on to star in 1971’s horror cheapie Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.
Plucky Suzanne Pleshette is satisfying as a saucy femme fatale with plenty of attitude in “The Pedigree Sheet”, some years before her role as Bob Newhart’s wife in The Bob Newhart Show. A youthful Robert Redford is equally startling as a murderous neo-Nazi hooligan who goes on a killing spree in Season Two’s “Tombstone for a Derelict”. Burgess Meredith is outstanding as an unbalanced, unexceptional beat poet in the season opener from Season Four, “Hold for Gloria Christmas”, an episode which also features a unintentionally hilarious cameo by a young Alan Alda playing a cool-cat beat poet ten years before his starring turn in M*A*S*H. The list goes on. And on.
With 138 episodes in total, there are far too many stories to detail here. Nonetheless, a few merit special consideration. Season One’s episode, “The Bumper”, is notable for its sudden and unexpected slaying of one of the show’s few ongoing characters – the result of the actor in question wishing to leave the show. Season Three brings another strong array of episodes, including “Portrait of a Painter”, which features William Shatner as a troubled young artist with a dead wife whom he swears didn’t murder.
Shatner chews the scenery delightfully, as only Shatner can, even in his pre-Star Trek, pre-Captain Kirk days. In typical Naked City fashion, the focus of the episode is more on the muddled psychology of the apparent killer than the mundane details of police procedure. And in the relatively lighthearted episode “The Multiplicity of Herbert Konish”, Jean Stapleton (who would later play Edith Bunker on All in the Family) turns in a familiar performance as a clueless but good-natured housewife whose husband, played by David Wayne, lives a multitude of identities.
For all the high-profile guest stars, there are just as many great episodes featuring actors who have been forgotten by most modern viewers. Mexican character actor Carlos Montalban does fine work in Season One’s “Baker’s Dozen”, while Harry Guardino (who?) and the lovely Marisa Pavan (who?) turn in energetic performances as a young engaged couple in the surprising and somewhat farcical Season Four episode, “No Naked Ladies in Front of Giovanni’s House!”
The show’s overarching tone could be described as humanist, if not outright bleeding-heart liberal. In fact, if the show had a motto, it might be: “Things are not what they seem.” Despite being steeped in noir-ish conventions and subject matter—crime, gangsters, tough guys and tough situations—the program is rarely satisfied with a black-and-white worldview, with villains and heroes and the noble task of keeping the world safe for democracy. The series is far more concerned with the story behind the story: the cowardly cop who covers up his own weakness; the burglar driven to extremes by circumstances’ the kid avenging his father’s mistreatment; the parent making the ultimate sacrifice.
In Naked City there are rarely clear instances of heroism or cowardice. Guilt and innocence are always subjective, and early impressions are more often than not reversed by the final reel. Needless to say, this is a surprising thing to find in a ‘50s crime drama.
Equally surprising are the moments of visual brilliance, the extreme camera angles and close-ups and dolly shots that mark some of the series’ more remarkable episodes. “Gloria Christmas” also benefits from abrupt time-shifts, with flashbacks interrupting the episode’s action with no forewarning – a surprisingly sophisticated narrative technique that briefly disorients the viewer (in a good way). Despite such moments of sophistication, though, many tiresome conventions of ‘50s and ‘60s era TV are apparent: the overbearing music, the doting housewives, the separate beds even for married couples(!). Such elements are easy enough to overlook, though, given the inventive storylines and (usually) fine acting on display. And if the stories at times tend toward darkness and existential angst, they are still resolved a little too easily for modern tastes.
Much more significant, and far more difficult to swallow for modern audiences, are the race and gender roles, which tend to be reflective of the limitations of the era. The focus here is squarely on white guys, whether noble or corrupt, haunted or complacent. Few of the episodes focus on ethnic minorities, an oversight that feels bewildering today given the series’ urban setting and focus on economic disadvantage. Women don’t have it much better; when they appear at all, they nearly always fall into typical “good girl” or “bad girl” roles. Of course they are usually white, and of course their focus is nearly always on the men (or in some cases, children) in their lives. That said, there are a few episodes that focus on women who manage to be more interesting than the typical happy housewife. There aren’t enough of them, though, and you’ve got to hunt them up.
The DVD set is impressive, with an excellently restored picture, and sound about as sharp as can be expected for such dated material. There are virtually no jitters or jumps, a testament to the hard work that went into this show’s restoration. There are disappointingly few extras, just an array of television commercials from the era. No matter, though: the series stands on its own.
Given that crime dramas never seem to go out of style, and that cop shows set in New York have been a staple of television since the medium came into widespread popularity, it’s impressive that the myriad tales of Naked City continue to startle and engage as much as they do. Viewers familiar with Blue Bloods, NYPD Blue and CSI:NY would do well to take a look at this series. In some ways it’s the ancestor of all the rest. In some other important ways, and despite its limitations, it continues to appear gleefully unorthodox.