The Naked City Movie Review

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 cafŽs, 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.

Producer Hellinger had his start in New York City daily papers before turning to screenwriting and producing, and one guesses that his background in journalism contributed to his vision for the integral role that New York itself plays in The Naked City: he wanted to weave the film's plot into the fabric of the city's day-to-day life -- his story, the narration reminds us, is after all only one of eight million -- and to do that he felt that the picture needed to be shot on location. Although New York figured in countless studio pictures in the thirties and forties, the New York on view in those pictures was one created on Hollywood's back lots; the challenges of location shooting in the city were enormous and, until The Naked City, prohibitive, ranging from crowd control to environmental noise. But Hellinger, bolstered by the success of Italian neo-realism's on-the-street aesthetic, was determined, and in cinematographer William Daniels he found the right man for the job. From its opening aerial views of Manhattan to its panic-inducing conclusion on the tower, The Naked City is triumphant in its documentation of the genuine article: New York City itself, the bustle of Delancey Street, the middle-class neighborhoods springing up in Astoria, the enclaves where the city's privileged gather, the actual steps of the county courthouse in the Bronx. Daniels dwells on the city's street life, and one difference between The Naked City and the films that came before it -- or even the New York portrayed in contemporary films -- is that the kids playing in the open hydrant, the vendors, even the little girls whose game of jump rope is disrupted by a fleeing murderer -- all these are actual New Yorkers, going about their business as usual, and remaining uncredited and unpaid.

These real-life vignettes add to The Naked City's seeming legitimacy, a tabloid-documentary style that's as factitious as it is seductive. (The subsequent blacklisting of screenwriter Albert Maltz and director Jules Dassin may have viewers who hold extremist beliefs scrutinizing the onscreen treatment of these huddled masses for potential communist leanings among its filmmakers, too.) It was exactly this feeling for the continuity and immediacy of city life that Hellinger, who took a very active creative role in the production, intended, and the film exudes atmosphere. Less successful -- except, perhaps, for those two final sentences -- is the narration, supplied by Hellinger, that punctuates the action (in his essay, Sante applies the adjective "oleaginous," meaning "unpleasantly suave or ingratiating" or "greasy" to this narration, and that choice of words cannot possibly be improved upon). I wrote that this narration punctuates the action, but the word I may have wanted is "interrupts"; Hellinger reminds us, for instance, that the film is set amid a heat wave, but the director has conveyed that fact already -- imagine that narration had interrupted Do the Right Thing to explain that the movie's characters, visibly wilting in the heat, were too warm -- and many narrated observations might function better as tabloid column filler than the moon-in-the-gutter poetry they're meant to be. Some may wish to quibble with the extreme Irishness -- and hence lovable quirkiness -- of Barry Sullivan's lieutenant as well.

But these are indeed quibbles. What The Naked City does, perhaps more successfully than any other film, is paint an indelible, and indelibly romantic, vision of both the New York City that never sleeps and of the human life and industry that teems within it. It's unique, compulsively watchable film noir.

The Criterion Collection edition includes a marvelous transfer of the film -- well worth the price for those of you who have seen only VHS editions -- as well as audio commentary by co-scenarist Marvin Wald and informative video interviews. Footage of director Dassin being interviewed before an audience following a 2004 screening of his Rififi is accompanied by a disclaimer from the DVD's producer: Despite its poor quality, they explain, they have chosen to include it because they find it to be "charming." It is.

Cast & Crew

Director :

Producer : Mark Hellinger

Starring : , Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, , Frank Conroy, , House Jameson

Comments

The Naked City Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 1948

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