Based on Jules Dassin's exceptional and highly influential 1948 film of the same name, the 1958-63 television series "Naked City" was unlike any other police show on TV. Like the movie, the series was filmed entirely in New York City, using real-life locations instead of studio sets, the result being a gritty, immediate feel to the stories.
Originally conceived as a half-hour drama, the show was revamped at the end of the first season. Stars James Franciscus and John McIntire were out (McIntire left midway through year one, his character getting killed off - a move that created quite a stir in its day); Horace McMahon, Paul Burke, and Nancy Malone were in. (Only character actor Harry Bellaver would remain, as Officer Frank Arcaro.)
The action centered on New York's 65th precinct, with baby-faced Detective Adam Flint (Burke) teaming with Frank, both under the careful watch of terminally grumpy Lt. Mike Parker (McMahon). Malone played Adam's girlfriend, Libby, adding a personal touch to the leading roles.
And personal touch was what "Naked City" was all about; while the show had its fair share of cop thrills and mystery suspense, "Naked City" focused almost entirely on the human drama. This series was a character study, less concerned with what was done than with who was doing it - and how real it all felt. In addition to the real-life locations, the actors themselves, rarely a pretty face among them, lent a authenticity to every story, giving the series a heart and soul so few television shows possess.
Also, the series rarely opted for the simplicity of black and white, right and wrong, instead enjoying the complexities of the grey areas of life. Consider one episode that begins with delinquents harassing a young woman: by the end of the episode, we actually find ourselves on the side of the teen punk, while the young woman's father becomes the real villain. Few shows have been so bold as to push stories into more uncertain areas.
The result for all of this was a playground for razor-sharp writing (the series was developed in part by Sterling Silliphant, who also served as story consultant throughout the show's run) and a paradise for actors. So rich were the guest starring roles in each episode that the series attracted some major names, both young and old; during the show's peak, the guest star roster was a virtual who's who of Hollywood.
For Image's simply-named "Naked City: Box Set 2," we get twelve episodes from the third and fourth seasons. Image has already released a handful of standalone discs (four episodes each), followed by the twelve-episode "Box Set 1." Obviously, full seasons sets would have been preferred, but considering how Image almost always goes the random-episode route when compiling TV shows onto DVD, and considering how double dips of this series are highly unlikely to happen anytime soon (rereleases would be highly unprofitable for the company, as "Naked City" is far less a guaranteed sale as, say, "The Twilight Zone"), these sampler packs are better than nothing. The episodes included on this three-disc set are:
"Today the Man Who Kills the Ants Is Coming." A policeman finds his depression growing and growing, until he explodes one fateful day. A powerhouse portrait of mental illness, created decades before such notions came into vogue.
"The Sweetly Smiling Face of Truth." A socialite involved with a married - and very famous - actor winds up charged with murder. Clever, bitter stuff.
"…And If Any Are Frozen, Warm Them!…" A Romanian immigrant and his friends steal a box of garbage in an elaborate heist; Mike becomes convinced that he's up to something bigger. Colorful view of the city's melting pot, with a fun appearance from Akim Tamiroff.
"The Multiplicity of Herbert Konish." A mild-mannered investor is actually leading many secret lives - but is he breaking the law, or doing anything wrong at all? Fantastic turns from David Wayne, Jean Stapleton, and Nancy Marchand help make this light and peculiar.
"The Rydecker Case." In arguably the best episode in this set, Adam busts a drunk driver, who later accuses him of coming on to her. The court case that follows threatens to ruin the detective. Written by a pre-"Star Trek" Gene Roddenberry.
"Memory of a Red Trolley Car." A professor, haunted by dreams of death, is accidentally poisoned. Why, then, would he avoid the hospital and run from the cops? Beatrice Straight plays the professor's wife.
"Idylls of a Running Back." A young lady shoots a football star, claiming to be his lover, in this early contemplation on celebrity stalkers. Sandy Dennis is frightening in the role of the stalker, while Aldo Ray is terrific as the athlete.
"Daughter Am I In My Father's House." When four teenage punks harass a girl, her military-obsessed father decides to use her as bait to lure them out. Dan Duryea is the creepy father and Barbara Harris is the beautiful but shy daughter. Very disturbing.
"And By the Sweat of Thy Brow…" A woman is rescued from a subway attack by a mysterious young man who lives in the shadows. Just when it's about to touch on the absurdly melodramatic, it becomes something very tender. Directed by Irvin Kirshner, who later went on to helm a little indie project titled "The Empire Strikes Back."
"Kill Me While I'm Young So I Can Die Happy!" Best title ever. A woman's suicide attempt fails, but she finds comfort in the company of Arcaro, who understands her loneliness. Maureen Stapleton delivers an emotional wallop, while Bellaver gets his own chance to shine.
"Go Fight City Hall." A goofy, loudmouthed drunk, feeling slighted by Adam on a case, takes to committing "a clever, well planned, and ridiculous robbery," followed by an even more ridiculous kidnapping. One of the series' lighter episodes, this brilliantly written piece comes with a healthy dose of silly humor.
"Dust Devil On a Quiet Street." Two actors - classmates of Libby - stage a murder in public, which leads to the accidental death of a bystander. Robert Walker, Jr., is the aspiring artist whose passion may be out of control.
As "Naked City" was produced on film, the series still looks amazing despite its age. The show made expert use of the black-and-white image, and these episodes, which look as crisp and clear as your favorite fully-restored classic film, crackle with life. There's no sign of dust or scratches that I could see. In fact, it probably looks sharper now than it did being picked up by the family twelve-inch TV. (Hey, it's so clear you can even see the shadow of a boom mic in one episode. Oops!) Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The crisp Dolby Digital mono track is as commendable as the video. There's no hissing, popping, or any other drawback to most TV shows of its era. The soundtrack has been cleaned up remarkably well, and Image has shown the wisdom not to enhance it with surround mixing. No subtitles are available.
As with Image's previous "Naked City" releases, the only extras here are a collection of original TV commercials that ran during each episode. They're interesting in a nostalgic kind of way - and I'd rather see spots for Brylcreem than the junk ads the major studios force onto their new releases - but there's so much behind this show that to not allow the series' story to be told in a supplemental feature feels like a loss. Still, Image wants this show to stand on its own, which it does so very well, that one can't complain too much.
Which doesn't mean I won't complain at all. The grab-bag episodes aren't as satisfying as a complete season, and the lack of extras doesn't entirely justify the price. Still, on the strength of the episodes (and their impeccable presentations), I'll give this a Highly Recommended rating, especially to fans of film noir, crime drama, and anyone just looking for some remarkable storytelling.