the-naked-city

Barry Fitzgerald as Lt. Dan Muldoon in The Naked City (1948) (The Criterion Collection)

Jules Dassin Versus Mark Hellinger and ‘The Naked City’

Producer Mark Hellinger may have committed the biggest crime in the filming of Jules Dassin's classic film-noir, 'The Naked City'.

The Naked City
Jules Dassin
Criterion
8 September 2020

We all know the line. Even those of us who have never seen the film or heard of it directly know the line: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” It immediately situates itself within the post-WW2 era United States—the matter-of-factness of it, employed to convey at once insight and bemusement. More to the point, it smacks of the kind of knowingly detached but slightly sappy self-seriousness that marks the police procedurals of 1950s television.

I suppose that comes as little surprise. After all, the film that closes with that line, The Naked City (1948), spawned a television series of the late ’50s and early ’60s (created by the celebrated screenwriter Stirling Silliphant), which employed the line as a catchphrase. It is perfect in that role and seems intended for it from the start. Its ridiculously over-the-top feigned gravitas catapults the line into instant familiarity; it’s laughable and yet captures something of the awe that cities like New York inspire in admirers and detractors alike.

It’s utterly lazy and the worst kind of gullible criticism to suggest that the “city” becomes a character in its own right—something that is said of all-too-many films and television series, including The Naked City—but this insipid line penetrates the impetus behind that suggestion. The city is teeming with trajectories, lines of flight and movement, and the desires and fears of the individuals living there—all of that intersecting, combining, falling apart. The lack of separation, the constant proximity of other people, doesn’t negate one’s pursuit of one’s own trajectory, one’s own set of goals and fears. Rather, that proximity ramifies the individual trajectory.

My plans are interrupted or augmented or diminished by yours and yours by mine. We get in each other’s way, we push each other forward, we impede each other’s progress, we assist each other on life’s way. Hence, the eight million stories. And each story features an ever-increasing and ever more outlandish cast of characters. Think of the innumerable cameos into other people’s lives you perform with every walk through Central Park.

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Smoke by werner22brigitte (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The Naked City—based on a story by Malvin Wald, directed by Jules Dassin, and produced by Mark Hellinger, who serves as the narrator who delivers the catchphrase—traces one story that touches upon several others. Or perhaps the better way to view it is that this story is the result of an amalgamation of several others—several individual trajectories that collide at the site of one nodal point, a point that can be seen materially as the corpse of a murdered woman, Jean Dexter. All of the other stories feed into or stretch outwards from this one: the police pursuing leads, the murderer avoiding capture, Dexter’s accomplishes evading responsibility and detection, Dexter’s parents reconciling themselves to that bitter combination of disappointment and bereavement, a loss through estrangement transmuting into a permanent and irrevocable loss through death.

This is what the film, at times, does quite well and what I fear that line obfuscates. The point isn’t a story per se. The point is that intersection of trajectories–and there are far more than eight million of those in a city like New York. To my way of thinking, the lack of fit between the simplifying and somewhat cloying gesture of that line (indeed, the narration as a whole) and the patient, quasi-documentarian approach to the investigation of the various trajectories is the productive and destructive tension of the film.

One can see that in the history of the making of the film. In the insert to its new edition, the Criterion Collection includes a reproduction of a memo from producer Hellinger to director Dassin concerning the celebrated final chase scene. The scene features the murderer, Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia), fleeing from the police officers who have methodically and slowly closed in upon him, led by Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor). In order to evade capture, Garzah climbs the dizzying heights of the support structure of the Williamsburg Bridge as the scope of the vistas of Manhattan and Brooklyn loom far below him.

The scene is crucial for many reasons—only the least of which is that it is the climax of the film. This scene, more than just about anything else in the film, is indicative of Dassin’s directorial style and vision whereas the majority of the film (I would say to its detriment) bears the thumbprint of Hellinger, who really sees the role of the producer as being as creative as it is financial.

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Ted De Corsia as Willy Garzah (IMDB)

The scene, in its final form, is a miracle of energizing pans and movements across the screen, as well as inventive camera placements that isolate Garzah against the yawning backdrop of the city. Throughout the film, Garzah was the unknown quantity. He was the man Muldoon and Halloran sought, treading cautiously throughout the city, pursing faint leads and seemingly random hunches, asking a thousand repetitive questions of citizens of the city and receiving precious few answers in return.

Garzah began as a cipher. Then clues emerged. Perhaps he was an acrobat—witnesses claimed he was large but agile. Perhaps he played the harmonica—why else steal a relatively worthless instrument during a pawnshop heist? Then it was discovered he was a former wrestler. The papers had an old picture. Then a lady vaguely recognizes the photograph as a man who plays harmonica for the local children. A child points out the building in which this fellow lives. On and on.

Slowly the background of the city recedes, and this isolated figure emerges. Then he runs and we follow. As he rises higher and higher into the sky, he is ever farther from the city that had provided him his anonymity. He becomes marked as separate from that context, the context that swallows individuality through anonymity, that hides one’s trajectory within a fabric of ever unfolding and contradictory movement.

It truly is a remarkable moment and gives the film a sense of direction that provides momentum out of the necessary monotony of the investigation that takes up the majority of the running time. The problem is that Hellinger did his level best to ruin it. “What we should do,” Hellinger wrote to Dassin, “from the time Garzah approaches the superstructure of the bridge, is to revert to the pattern of our entire film.” Hellinger laments the fact that pages of script have gone by without the narrator (the role he plays with all the aplomb of the rank amateur who thinks the only distinction between a starring role and a supernumerary role is the amount of forced character with which the actor imbues it). The narration is the most grating element of the film and it nearly derails it throughout. But its one saving grace had been that it communicated the dull, steadfast perseverance required by police work.

Indeed, one compelling aspect of
The Naked City is its ability to portray police work as a strange amalgam of tedium and inspiration (through hunches). Neither the tedium nor the hunches work out all the time and finding the right balance between them is impossible. Moreover, one detective’s hunch leads to another’s monotonous questioning of denizens of a neighborhood. One half-hearted response leads to a further hunch. The whole apparatus moves slowly and by fits and starts.

This is why the narrator, despite Hellinger’s insistence to the contrary, has no real role in that final pursuit and the fact that Hellinger foisted that narrative voice on part of the sequence is, to my mind, a crime against a very fine piece of film. The point of that scene seems to me to be the eruption of activity out of all of that careful, painstaking work. All the seemingly pointless questions, the following up on dead ends, the fruitless searches through neighborhoods: all of that tedium explodes into this chase scene.

Hellinger isn’t wrong that chase scenes are a dime a dozen. The difference here is that
this chase seen derives from the logic implicit in the film itself as a police procedural. The procedure is dull and relies upon mind-numbing repetition. But doing that tedious work eventuates in a breakthrough. Beating the bushes is a relentless, boring endeavor—until it results in the flight of the hunted.

The moment, thanks to Dassin, is strong enough to withstand the annoying return of the narrator, who reaches into his bag of clichés to remind Garzah not to run, not to call attention to himself. It’s a ridiculous moment and it deflates some of the headlong burst of energy the eruption of Garzah’s trajectory of flight out of the anonymity of the city created. Fortunately, it isn’t enough to derail this truly engaging sequence. It almost does, but not quite. Then, blessedly, that voice falls silent and we watch pure motion, the inevitable ending to that trajectory. That last line about the “eight million stories”, however…that might be one cliché too many.

***

Criterion Collection has released a blu-ray edition of The Naked City. It is beautifully restored and comes with several intriguing extras including audio commentary by screenwriter Malvin Wald, an interview with film scholar Dana Polan, and an interview with James Sanders concerning the locations in New York City where specific scenes were shot.

RATING 5 / 10
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