The Naked City

Director: Jules Dassin
Screenplay: Albert Maltz & Malvin Wald (story by Malvin Wald)
Stars: Barry Fitzgerald (Det. Lt. Dan Muldoon), Howard Duff (Frank Niles), Dorothy Hart (Ruth Morrison), Don Taylor (Det. Jimmy Halloran), Frank Conroy (Capt. Donahue), Ted de Corsia (Willie Garza), House Jameson (Dr. Stoneman), Anne Sargent (Mrs. Halloran), Adelaide Klein (Mrs. Paula Batory), Grover Burgess (Mr. Batory), Tom Pedi (Det. Perelli), Enid Markey (Mrs. Edgar Hylton), Mark Hellinge (Narrator)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1948
Country: U.S.
The Naked City: Criterion Collection DVD
The Naked CityShot on 107 different locations around New York City, Jules Dassin’s The Naked City was a new kind of a crime thriller, one whose striking originality when it premiered in 1948 subsequently paved the way for every detailed police procedural that followed, from Dragnet to CSI. The film simultaneously broke ground in two major areas: the depiction of solving crimes as a steady, step-by-step process and its large-scale use of location photography, both of which are now mainstays of the genre.

The crime that sets the story in motion is the murder of a beautiful young starlet, who is found dead in her apartment’s bathtub by the maid. The murder itself has all the hallmarks of a tabloid tragedy--beauty cut down in the prime of life, a potentially sordid lifestory just waiting to be unearthed, and all of it caught in the glaring lights of Broadway and its temptations of fame and excess. Two detectives from the homicide squad are called in to solve the murder: the older, wiser Irish Detective Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and the younger, less patient, but well-meaning Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor). The pairing of the older and younger detectives is by now a well-worn cliché--the “police buddy film”--but when The Naked City was released, it was an innovative narrative approach because previous crime movies had tended to focus on individual detectives who were loners and cynics. Muldoon and Halloran were a team, working together and offering their individual strengths and talents to a greater cause.

The majority of The Nake City follows the detectives as they track down leads, conduct interviews, and pour over evidence. Coscreenwriter Malvin Wald, who was the real genesis of the project, spent a month researching the New York police department, and his script crackles with small details about procedure and method. The focus is on the process, whether that be analyzing the details of an autopsy photo, looking over lists of stolen jewels, or grilling potential suspects, including Frank Niles (Howard Duff), a shifty opportunist who knew the murder victim and has a bad tendency to lie about everything. At one point, Detective Halloran gets impatient with the process, to which Detective Muldoon confidently asserts, “That’s the way you run a case, lad. Step by step.”

In stark contrast to the film noir that were reaching their peak of influence in the immediate postwar years, The Naked City offered a sense of reassurance, suggesting that criminality could be stopped as long as there were good men on the job who worked as part of a larger system. The film reinforces the stability of society even as it portrays the big city as a potential cesspool of crime and a haven for criminals.

This is why it is so crucial that the entire film was shot on location in New York City. Prior to The Naked City, few if any films had been shot in New York since the conversion to sound in the late 1920s. This is not to say that films never took place in New York; rather, the city had been recreated for decades in Los Angeles studios and on backlots, leading to what film scholar James Sanders has called the creation of the “mythic city.” Dassin’s film brought New York itself back to the depiction of New York, and his cameras went everywhere in and around Manhattan. Not only did he shoot on the streets of the Upper West Side and the Lower East Side, he took his cameras onto the Williamsburg Bridge and even inside various buildings, including a morgue and a tenement. Inspired by the gritty verisimilitude of Italian neorealism, Dassin made the city itself a character, and the film has a tangible sense of life that simply can’t be captured on a set.

Also crucial to the film’s view of New York is the presence of producer Mark Hellinger, a hard-living journalist and raconteur whose specialty was writing stories about life on the city streets. He had an affinity for the Big Apple, and he captured it in prose the way few writers could; it was literally in his blood. For The Naked City he provided a voice-over narration that marked a radical break with the way narration had previously been used. He introduces himself as the producer of the film in the opening moments, and then settles into a detailed running commentary on the film, explaining the action, filling in background (such as the fact that Detective Halloran is a veteran of World War II), and later speaking directly to the characters themselves as if he were a member of the active audience. Hellinger’s unique vocal cadences have been mimicked and parodied for decades, so a contemporary viewer can’t be faulted entirely for thinking the narration a tad over-the-top and almost comical at times. Yet, Hellinger’s narrative overlay is so ingrained that it would be hard to imagine the film without it.

Because so many aspects of The Naked City have been adopted by countless movies and television programs, it is easy to miss just how innovative and groundbreaking this film was. Sadly, though, many of those responsible for its innovations suffered heavily in the next few years as the House Un-American Activities Committee turned its attention to Hollywood and began calling writers, directors, and actors to the floor of Congress to answer for their political beliefs. This resulted in director Jules Dassin having to flee to Europe and screenwriter Albert Maltz being jailed as one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten” (Wald escaped the blacklist only because he was tipped off not to take the bait of signing a petition being circulated by an undercover FBI agent). Nevertheless, these filmmakers left their mark on American cinema with The Naked City, and even if parts of it don’t play particularly well after 60 years, it remains a milestone of the genre and a redefining moment in the relationship between the movies and the city that gave birth to them.

The Naked City Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AnamorphicNo
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
Supplements
  • Audio commentary by screenwriter Malvin Wald
  • Video interview with film scholar Dana Polan
  • Video interview with film scholar James Sanders
  • Video footage of a 2004 Q&A with Jules Dassin at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Stills gallery
  • Insert booklet with a new essay by Luc Sante and production notes from Mark Hellinger to Dassin
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateMarch 20, 2007

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s sparkling new high-definition transfer of The Naked City was taken from a 35mm fine-grain composite print and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. The resultant image is outstanding, with excellent contrast and detail that brings out all the nitty-gritty of the location photography without losing the filmlike appearance (by comparison, the image is much brighter and sharper than the previously available DVD from Image Entertainment). The monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm composite fine-grain optical track print and also digitally restored. The track is clean, with virtually no ambient hiss. Dialogue crackles like it should, and the bustling ambient sounds create a surprisingly lively soundscape for a film of its age.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    At first, I was a bit skeptical of the audio commentary by coscreenwriter Malvin Wald, but after a few minutes, I found it quite engrossing. While he tends to narrate what’s happening on screen too much, quite a bit of his commentary conveys fascinating production stories and analysis of the film, of which he is rightly proud (although he sometimes extends his comparisons a bit far--yes, it is easy to see The Naked City’s connection to NYPD Blue and Pulp Fiction, but Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the O.J. Simpson trial?). In addition to Wald’s commentary, there are two lengthy interviews with film scholars that are definitely worth watching. Dana Polan, author of numerous books including Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, 1940-1950, talks about the film’s cinematic legacy and its relationship to film noir and other crime films, while James Sanders, author of the recently published Scenes From the City: Filmmaking in New York, discusses the film’s fascinating relationship to the Big Apple. Dassin fans will be pleased by the 40 minutes of video footage of the director at a 2004 Q&A at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art after a screening of one of his films. Also on the disc is an original theatrical trailer and a stills gallery, and the insert book includes a new essay by Luc Sante and a letter from Mark Hellinger to Dassin about how he was planning on handling the climactic chase at the end of the film.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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