The Naked City
March 16, 2007
Producer Mark Hellinger was interested in making a crime movie in the same vein as Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) except that New York City would be the main character. His main writer, Malvin Wald, gave him a screenplay entitled Homicide and Arthur Fellig’s book of photographs entitled Naked City. It featured stark snapshots of dead bodies, fires and people being arrested. Hellinger was so taken with Fellig’s photos that he hired him as the still photographer for the production and retitled the script, The Naked City (1948).
The film opens with a series of aerial shots of Manhattan Island and a voiceover that states how this movie was not shot in a studio but on location. This sets the tone for a motion picture that blends the film noir style with an Italian neorealism aesthetic. The opening sequence montage and its accompanying voiceover narration is almost documentary in nature as it introduces the city and its denizens. Director Jules Dassin shows us a cross-section of the city – people going to work, from the guy on the street corner to the Upper West Side socialite. We see the city streets thriving with life – in the backgrounds of scenes kids eat ice cream from a vendor.
The story begins properly with the drowning of an unmarried woman. Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Fitzgerald) investigates and discovers that she was in fact murdered. The way he and his fellow detectives inspect the crime scene and speak to the witnesses anticipates the police procedural portion of the Law & Order television show as we see the process that these men adhere to in piecing together what happened. The film is a step-by-step account of how a murder investigation is conducted, complete with hardboiled voiceover narration.
The Naked City shifts its focus briefly from Muldoon to detective Jimmy Halloran (Taylor) and we see some of the legwork he does to further the investigation. He follows a lead – the source of the victim’s drug prescription – then a dress shop – a job she held briefly before being fired. It’s Halloran’s job to follow many leads no matter how small, some lead nowhere while others provide insight into the victim’s character. Muldoon spends time questioning potential suspects and pouring over photographs of the crime scene and even dealing with crackpots looking for attention, which provides a welcome moment of levity.
The film eschews Hollywood-style action for an emphasis on legwork and paperwork. We see Muldoon sift through false leads and a crazy man claiming to be the murderer. It’s not very glamourous but there is a certain nobility to what he does. Even when the chance for a flashy sequence presents itself – Halloran pursuing the murderer down a fire escape – Dassin shoots it matter-of-factly.
One can see a similar approach – shedding light on the machinations of the city’s legal system – in certain films by Sidney Lumet, complete with an absence of overt style – strictly meat and potatoes filmmaking. The Naked City is a fantastic snapshot of the city in the late 1940s, a historical record of the times. Watching this movie is like going back in time to a New York City that no longer exists. While this movie didn’t exactly light up the box office or wow the critics, it did inspire a T.V. show of the same name that employed the memorable line that ends the movie, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”
There is an audio commentary by screenwriter Malvin Wald. He says that he conceived the film and spent six months on it. He points that it caused the same kind of critical attention in the 1940s as Pulp Fiction (1994) did in the 1990s. Wald also says that The Naked City took a brand new approach to murder stories. He goes on to mention that the film pioneered the police buddy story: the older veteran and his younger partner. The murder in the film was based on an actual case that was never solved. Wald references several contemporary films and TV shows and compares them to this film on this decent track.
“Dana Polan Interview” features the New York University professor talking about the film’s social impact. He argues that the film begins where the film noir ends and in this respect it is a police procedural. He says that this film asks the question, what does it mean to be an ordinary American? Also, what happens when men come back from World War II? He points out that The Naked City celebrates normalcy and ordinariness.
“James Sanders Interview” is an architect who discusses the film’s depiction of New York City in the 1940s. He points out that film began in that city with the Edison brothers in 1907 and they shot footage of life in the emerging metropolis. However, once Hollywood started making films in California, many productions would only use establishing shots from New York and then shoot the interiors in California. The Naked City was a watershed film that was shot entirely on location on the streets of New York. This is a fascinating extra with some great behind-the-scenes stills.
“Jules Dassin at LACMA.” The director discusses his career at an event at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a couple of years ago. Despite his old age, Dassin is full of energy and good humour as he recounts several entertaining stories about his life and films.
Finally, there is a “Stills Gallery” that includes production stills, posters and behind-the-scenes photos.