PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Naked City (1948)

Michael Buening

This film's repetitive structures, meticulous legwork, and melting pot locations would become a staple of television crime-solvers.

The Naked City

Director: Jules Dassin
Cast: Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor, Howard Duff, Ted de Corsia
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Universal Pictures
First date: 1948
US DVD Release Date: 2007-03-20

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.”


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.