#518) The Naked City (1948)

#518) The Naked City (1948)

OR “True-ish Detective”

Directed by Jules Dassin

Written by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald

Class of 2007

The Plot: With a reminder of the eight million stories that take place every day in New York City, we zero in on one of them: the murder of model Jean Dexter, and the detectives (Barry Fitzgerald & Don Taylor) who take the case. Over the course of the next few days, the mystery begins to unravel as more clues are revealed, lies are exposed, and the innocent appear more guilty. But all of this serves as the backdrop for the movie’s real star: New York City itself; not a recreation on a Hollywood soundstage, but the real streets with real people.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “cutting-edge, gritty crime procedural [that] introduced a new style of film-making”. The film’s unique production is highlighted, along with its Oscar wins and “heart-pounding resolution”.

But Does It Really?: Oh sure. “Naked City” is not the first on anyone’s list of essential films, but it does stand out thanks to its on-location production and unique approach to the crime genre which, while on-par with any procedural TV show of the last 70 years, was revolutionary in its day. Producer Mark Hellinger, director Jules Dassin, and cinematographer William Daniels all help create a movie that, while a bit dated now, still has a vibrancy that warrants a viewing, and eventual NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: Jules Dassin started off as an actor, before becoming an assistant director at RKO and eventually a director at Universal. Dassin’s Hollywood career was cut short because of the Blacklist (he was briefly a member of the Communist party), but a move to Europe led to his best known films, including “Rififi” and “Never on Sunday“.

Wow, That’s Dated: Pretty much everything about the crime and its solving would have to get a major overhaul for a modern remake, but the big question is: could “The Naked City” be remade at all? With modern America deeply divided on how exactly the police should protect and serve, the time for a movie in which the cops are the undisputed good guys cracking down on clear-cut criminals is definitively over.

Title Track: Originally titled “Homicide”, “The Naked City” gets its title from the 1945 photography book of the same name by Arthur Fellig, better known as “Weegee”. Although the movie was connected to the book in name only, Weegee was hired to serve as the film’s visual consultant, as his stark photos of New York’s seedier side were exactly what Dassin and Hellinger were trying to convey. Fun Fact: Weegee later served as still photographer on “Dr. Strangelove“, and Peter Sellers based the voice of the titular character somewhat on Weegee’s unique Austrian-by-way-of-Lower East Side accent.

Seriously, Oscars?:  A surprise hit for Universal, “The Naked City” received three Oscar nominations, and won two of them: Black-and-White Cinematography for William Daniels and Editing for Paul Weatherwax. The film’s original story by Malvin Wald was also nominated, losing to Fred Zinnemann’s “The Search”.

Other notes 

  • Despite the title, this movie contains zero nudity.
  • Right from the start, this movie told me how it got on the NFR. In lieu of traditional opening credits, “The Naked City” begins with the narrator (producer Mark Hellinger) announcing that the film you are about to see was filmed on the real streets of New York, and everyone besides the principles are real people. From frame one the real star of this movie is the groundbreaking Neorealism portrayal of the Big Apple.
  • “The Naked City” was filmed in New York during the summer of 1947. To efficiently film on-location, William Daniels and his camera were hidden in the back of an indiscreet moving van. Allegedly Jules Dassin also hired a juggler to distract pedestrians from the shoot.
  • Shoutout to the anonymous blonde woman playing the corpse of Jean Dexter, aka “the vic”.
  • Ah Barry Fitzgerald, Classic Hollywood’s greatest Irish stereotype. Side Note: In keeping with his leprechaun demeanor, Fitzgerald was 5’3″, with all of his co-stars towering over him and making two-shots nearly impossible.
  • A fun example of how our lexicon evolves over time: at two different points in the movie a woman is described as “handsome”.
  • This film would obviously make a good double-feature with Mark Hellinger’s other NFR crime drama “The Killers“, but it would also pair well with Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat“. Both films deal with the dichotomy of a police detective’s brutal career and their angelic home life in the new suburbia of the late ’40s/early ’50s.
  • As impressive as the on-location shooting is, 1948 Hollywood still hadn’t mastered effective audio recording. Most of the dialogue in this movie is either dubbed in post, or not being picked up clearly by the boom mikes.
  • In order to preserve the reality of the film, a majority of the cast were stage and radio actors in their film debut. None of them went on to become big stars (like their director, a number of them were blacklisted), but among the new faces are Paul Ford (later of “Sgt. Bilko”) and Kathleen Freeman (later of “And I cahn’t stahnd him“).
  • Mark Hellinger is not a very helpful narrator. He’s constantly commenting on the case’s dead ends, and is of no help when one of the criminals tries to escape. This is why narrators shouldn’t get involved in their stories.
  • As for that finale on the Williamsburg bridge: effective and satisfying, sure, but one of the greatest in film history? I don’t think so.
  • While the narrator’s closing line “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” has definitely been quoted over the years, I suspect most people don’t know what it’s from, even though if you quote it correctly you say the title.

Legacy 

  • Sadly, producer Mark Hellinger died of a heart attack three months before the film’s release, shortly after watching the final cut. A veteran theater critic back in New York, Broadway’s Hollywood Theatre was renamed the Mark Hellinger Theatre in his honor. The theater closed in 1989, and is now the site of the Times Square Church.
  • The main legacy of “The Naked City” is the TV show of the same name (well, minus the “The”). Originally a direct follow-up to the movie, “Naked City” was cancelled after one season, but the producers and sponsors convinced ABC to revive the show. The revamped hour-long version ran for three additional seasons. Every episode ended with the film’s final line, and I’ll argue that more people know it from the TV show than from the movie.
  • Here’s a weird one: “The Naked City” is the name of a standalone mission in the 2011 video game “L.A. Noire”, and is beat-for-beat the plot of this movie, but set in 1940s Los Angeles. So…that’s something.
  • There are almost 800 movies in the National Film Registry. This has been one of them.

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