The Moral Code: ‘Naked City: 20 Star-Filled Episodes’

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”

— closing narration

Based on the 1948 film of the same name, Naked City is a television series focused on police detectives and criminals in New York City. The series ran for four seasons, the first of which consisted of a half-hour show with two different lead detectives. The remaining seasons were an hour long and mainly followed Detective Adam Flint (Paul Burke).

All but two of the 20 episodes in this collection are from the hour long years, and unsurprisingly, they tend to be better showcases for their stories. While Flint, along with his superior, Lieutenant Mike Parker (Horace McMahon), and fellow officer, Sergeant Frank Arcaro (Harry Bellaver) are a focus of the series, much of the spotlight goes to the criminals and their weekly stories. In fact, Naked City is particularly known for its terrific use of guest stars, as the aptly named Naked City: 20 Star-Filled Episodes DVD attests.

The guest stars vary from episode to episode and almost always portray the criminal. This set includes Robert Duvall (in two separate episodes), Christopher Walken, Carol O’Conner, Diane Ladd, Peter Fonda, Robert Redford, and Jean Stapleton, among others.

Airing from 1958 to 1963, the series owes a great deal to film noir, as it employs much of the starkness and high drama associated with the genre. The first episode featured in the set, “Sweet Prince of Delancey Street”, is a perfect introduction to the collection, as well as a great example of the style. The episode revolves around robbery and murder at a warehouse and a father and son are both considered suspects at one time. The detective work involved in piecing together the various versions of the story, along with the strong performances by Robert Morse, James Dunn, and a young Dustin Hoffman, all make for an intriguing and satisfying hour of television.

Modern audiences would probably view the acting as melodramatic, but through the course of the 20 episodes, the series establishes and reestablishes the contrast between Flint – and his fellow officers – and the criminals they are in pursuit of so single-mindedly. The contrast is most obvious in the almost always cool and collected Flint juxtaposed with the desperate and histrionic criminals.

One of the standout performances is by Robert Sterling in “Alive and Still a Second Lieutenant”. The episode is especially successful because of the layers involved in telling what could be a simple instance of rage turned to murder. However, because Sterling’s Jason Colwell is struggling with a romantic relationship and overwhelming guilt, the story becomes more identifiable, regardless of the extenuating circumstances, and he is actually sympathetic even though he is the criminal of the week. Jon Voight is also very good in the episode as the son of the murdered man and the scenes between him and Sterling are wonderful to watch.

Despite the series’ focus on the lawbreakers, one of the highlights in the set is the episode entitled “Prime of Life”. It’s from the series’ fourth and final season and as such has earned the right to shift the spotlight to Flint. The episode centers on Flint attending the execution for a man he helped to put away. Other officers and reporters join him, as they witness a man die. Flint’s reluctance to attend and discomfort while awaiting the prisoner’s death, lead to flashbacks and dreamlike sequences that shed light not only on the man set to be executed, but on Flint as well, in a way that the other episodes in the set do not. While his relationship with his actress girlfriend, Libby (Nancy Malone), is a recurring point in the series, this episode offers a real glimpse into Flint that delves deeper into the character’s sensitivity and moral code.

In many ways, Naked City is an early precursor to Law and Order and its brand of gritty criminal stories with guest stars of note routinely employed. The series makes excellent use of New York City as the backdrop and this well-chosen collection includes terrific performances from many actors who would go on to have long-lasting and distinguished careers. In shifting the focus episode to episode, Naked City successfully brings together both sides of the law in a way that is both absorbing and exciting, while still doing an admirable job of character development.

The DVD release contains no special features.

RATING 8 / 10