Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Film Noir historians reserve a special place in their hearts for Mark Hellinger and Jules Dassin's The Naked City, a highly influential crime thriller filmed almost entirely in the streets of New York City. Malvin Wald's original story blends standard Hollywood storytelling with documentary techniques to produce a new kind of heightened reality. Cops go after a mysterious killer and viewers are shown a fairly accurate image of how real crimes are solved -- handsome private detectives are not part of the equation. Louis de Rochemont took his cameras to real locations for The House on 92nd Street but The Naked City adds a dimension of journalistic poetry by telling its story through an omniscient POV narrator, who seems to be the soul of the city itself. "There are eight million stories in the Naked City" has entered the language as an indelible catch phrase.
The vicious murder of beautiful blonde Jean Dexter drives the tabloids crazy. Detectives Dan Muldoon and young Jimmy Halloran (Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor) go to work with an army of detectives and police forensic professionals to help. They locate Dexter's shifty boyfriend Frank Niles (Howard Duff), who has a bad habit of telling lies. His fiancée Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart) doesn't realize that Frank was two-timing her and giving her stolen jewelry. Following the clues of the jewelry, the detectives eventually puts the puzzle together -- but the unlucky family man Halloran encounters the dangerous killer on his own.
Outside descriptions of The Naked City may lead one to expect a movie of revolutionary dimensions. Mark Hellinger's film initiated a storytelling style and the entire 'police procedural' genre we know today from countless movies and TV shows, so one has to turn back the clock to appreciate its accomplishment. Crime films previously centered on heroic detectives and policemen that more often than not 'just happened' to uncover crimes while making time for romance and other pursuits. If the crooks didn't openly announce their guilt, they'd show themselves by kidnapping the hero's faithful girlfriend. "Clues" tended to be romantic items like perfumed silk scarves and elaborate extortion notes. Bad guys invariably confessed all as soon as the hero put the finger on them.
Part of the trouble was the Production Code, which made sure that the sordid realities of life were kept mostly out of the movies. Showing real crime meant showing how real people lived, and the Code decided long before that real audiences needed to be protected from reality.
The Naked City started with research into actual police methods. Lead detective Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald in perhaps his least cloying role) puts pressure on a shaky associate of the murdered woman, while his subordinates do the exhausting leg-work pursuing every possible lead: interviewing people, finding out where a pair of silk pajamas might have been bought. Forensic experts examine the body. Teams of detectives follow the suspects. Because it's a headline case, kooks show up at the precinct house to falsely confess.
Muldoon is the investigation's central brain but it's people like Halloran and Detective Perelli (the great Tom Pedi) that bring in the good information. Frank Niles trips up in his lies, which leads to more information. The cops uncover a messy crime story that involves not only the murder but a series of jewel robberies as well.
The film is given a refreshing structure through the narration of producer Mark Hellinger. Montages of relevant city life pop up, not quite in the mode of Berlin: Symphony of a City but sketching human details of New York life. Then the camera sweeps into a window where a sordid murder is being committed: A beautiful woman is chloroformed and then drowned in a bathtub. The narrator shows us incidental views of many people, including the actual killer, as the story ranges through the economic and social strata of the city. The killer may be a lowlife from the lower East Side, but his high-toned uptown associates are just as guilty: Liars and thieves compromising their values for money and sex.
Hellinger changes his tone as the net closes on the actual killer. Suddenly he remarks on how the killer is making mistakes and losing his grip ... and even offers unheeded advice. The famous "eight million stories" line is saved for the end, when the voice appears to meld with the identity of the city itself. With the crime solved the murdered girl's story will soon disappear from the headlines. She's last represented by the sight of some soggy newspapers being moved from the gutter into the trash. City poetry doesn't get better than this: Hellinger found his title The Naked City on a Weegee photo study of the streets of New York.
The Naked City is by no means a documentary. Barry Fitzgerald's 'cute Irishman' act enlivens and humanizes the police in approved dramatic fashion. The show also provides a bravura acting assignment for Howard Duff as the society cad who cons everyone but the cops. He fools two beautiful women, including a charming debutante-model (Dorothy Hart) unable to believe he could be so dishonest. The murder victim also fooled around, seducing a high society doctor (House Jameson) as part of a criminal scheme. Down on the docks, one of the hoods that do the actual burglaries (Walter Burke) gets cold feet over taking part in a murder. His partner wastes no time in murdering him, too.
The Naked City's back story is potentially more interesting than Laura Palmer's tale in the Twin Peaks saga. Jean Dexter starts out as the helpless victim of a ghastly murder. On the morgue slab she looks like a trampled angel. By the time we're finished we discover that the beauty was the ruthless center of a complicated burglary ring. She controlled men by sleeping with them. We're not sure if she was a victim or a predator.
In a scene filmed in a real morgue, Jean's small-town parents tell us that she changed her name and ran away to the big city. In the space of a few minutes, the mother goes from shouting that she hates Jean, to breaking down in tears over her body: "My baby!" Director Jules Dassin takes a moment to show the parents standing on a pier on the East River as the sun sets, mourning their loss: "Why wasn't she born ugly?" These 'unnecessary' tangents are what make The Naked City memorable.
Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, co-wrote the script. Unlike Jules Dassin's other American noirs the political context is subdued. Brute Force was a hysterical scream against prison injustice and Thieves' Highway an indictment of racketeering as usual in the produce trade. A possible liberal agenda shows when the script sides with the salaried cops against the idle and narcissistic rich. The old matron admires her ring while flirting with Don Taylor's young detective, and Barry Fitzgerald definitely thinks that Howard Duff has to be crooked if he's spending $50 on a single evening's entertainment. The axe falls heavy on the foolish doctor who allows his social file to fall into the hands of crooks. Dan Muldoon says that jumping out of windows never solved anything, but in this town losing one's good name may be worse.
The Naked City delivers a bravura final chase onto the Williamsburg Bridge. As soon as the tables are turned the killer becomes strangely sympathetic. He's a vicious murderer, but when Jules Dassin isolates him in the towers of the bridge he personifies God's Lonely Man. The only witness to his personal agony is the unfeeling city.
Ted de Corsia plays a particularized brute, exercising constantly and boasting that he neither smokes nor drinks. He might have gotten away if he didn't choose the wrong moment to panic. Of special note are debut bits by many name actors, some of which were previously associated with Jules Dassin in left-wing theater groups. It was Walter Burke's first American film role, Paul Ford's third bit part, Kathleen Freeman's first bit and the first film of both James Gregory and John Randolph. It was the first non-Yiddish film for David Opatashu and Molly Picon (Fiddler on the Roof). John Marley and Tom Pedi's only previous roles had been in Paul Robeson's left-wing classic Native Land. Look close and you'll also see Arthur O'Connell, although he'd already been around in films for ten years.
Criterion's DVD of The Naked City continues their line of Jules Dassin noir greats; with Thieves' Highway and Night and the City down, only Brute Force remains. The transfer is very good but a bit grainy and the audio is fine. The movie has no opening titles although Mark Hellinger reads credits as part of his opening narration.
Writer Malvin Wald provides a commentary that's one part excellent and two parts description of what happens on screen. Incredibly, Universal-International balked at releasing the movie when Hellinger died suddenly after its first preview: by that time the HUAAC curtain was falling heavily on Hollywood. NYU film professor Dana Polan contributes an insightful but overlong analysis of the movie, explaining its innovations to the genre. Also welcome but a bit long-winded is an analysis of the film's hundreds of locations in and around Manhattan. It's hosted by James Sanders, author of the book Celluloid Skyline.
The best extra is a rough videotape of director Jules Dassin's 2004 appearance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Asked to comment on the blacklist, Dassin says that we've got more pressing problems now - the Patriot Act. Because of his French hit Rififi people think he's a European, but he simply identifies himself as "Julie Dassin from Connecticut."
Criterion disc producer Issa Clubb gives us an insert with an essay by Luc Sante and notes from producer Hellinger to Dassin on how to shoot the chase scene. A still gallery is included; the promised trailer does not appear. ( Thanks to Scott Parker for this correction.)
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Naked City rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary by Malvin Wald, interview doc with Dana Polan, Location analysis by James Sanders, Dassin appearance at LACMA, 2004, stills gallery; essay by Luc Sante and production notes from Hellinger to Jules Dassin.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 4, 2007
A note from welcome correspondent and critic Avie Hern, 3.13.07:
Glenn: A bit disappointed that you didn't mention Miklos Rozsa's score to The Naked City. It's actually the only film he scored in which he shared screen credit with another composer; because of the tight post-production schedule, he agreed to let Frank Skinner compose the underscoring for many of the dialogue scenes, while Rozsa did the higher-profile material like the Main and End Titles, and the scherzo and fugue that accompany the final pursuit of the killer across the Williamsburg Bridge.
As you say, The Naked City was a stark departure from the police and detective stories that were Hollywood staples, such as Laura, with its lilting, romantic David Raksin score. By contrast, Rozsa's was angular and biting in helping depict often unpleasantly realistic events.
The Naked City was Rozsa's third, and last, score for ex-newspaperman Hellinger (the others being The Killers and Brute Force). The two men became very good friends, which was unusual for Rozsa, as he generally didn't have a very high opinion of most producers. After Hellinger died, Rozsa put together a suite of scores he'd written for the three films, culminating in the above-mentioned scherzo and fuge and End Title from The Naked City; titled by the composer Song of a Great City, it was Rozsa's elegy to his departed friend. -- Avie
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson