How many stories are there in the naked city? Eight million; everyone knows that figure -- Kurtis Blow even cut a rap single on the premise -- and the sole reason that this tidbit of cultural knowledge is shared by all is to be found in the closing narration of the 1948 film noir The Naked City: "There are eight million storied in the naked city. This has been one of them." In truth, producer Mark Hellinger lifted his film's title from a coffee table compendium of photography -- arguably the first book of its kind whose focus was the art of the camera rather than that of the paintbrush -- by a certain Arthur Fellig, better-known by his nom de lens Weegee. Today we recognize Weegee's candid photos of New York's underside, taken together, as an indispensable document of a nighttime city long since gone by, but in his day Weegee's work gained only gradual acceptance because of its source: tabloid newspapers, the yellow press. The subjects of his photos bore this out: in his frames gangsters lay in the street, blood pooled around their broken faces; fires raged through occupied tenements; uniformed cops took aim on neon-lit city streets, open cruiser doors serving as shields. According to an essay by film historian Luc Sante that accompanies the new Criterion release of the film, Hellinger was presented with a copy of Weegee's The Naked City right around the time that a screenplay for a film tentatively titled Homicide crossed his desk; Hellinger, finding that the tone of Weegee's work matched exactly his vision for a film in which New York City served as the de facto central character, bought Homicide, re-titled it, and hired Weegee himself as still photographer for the production.
And although we readily identify The Naked City as film noir today, in reality the focus of the film is slightly skewed by comparison with other classics of the genre. Here it is the police, not a P.I. or American everyman-turned-vigilante, who brings the usual assortment of noir perps to justice, and the action we follow is that of the police procedure that draws the net ever closer. The picture opens with the murder of a young woman, a blonde knockout who models dresses for a living and who was lured to the city's bright lights and flashy lifestyle like a moth to the flame, and before a single day has passed, seasoned lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and his rookie, war vet partner (Don Taylor) have administered the third degree to a seedy cross-section of New York society. Some of these interested parties, you'll be surprised to learn, are not completely forthcoming; from here, we follow Muldoon, whose job is to sort the lies from the truth, and partner Halloran, who puts in a lot of legwork and follows a hunch or two of his own. The film ends in a justly famed chase sequence through the maze of the Lower East Side (this legendary immigrant neighborhood, now the home of boutiques and cafs, is captured on film as it never has been before or since) and ends in a vertiginous sequence atop a tower of the Williamsburg Bridge.
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