The Naked City

Jules Dassin | USA | 1948

1993 Thessaloniki
2018 (Restored version) Venice

This superlative film set the pattern for myriad documentary-type dramas to come. Its producer, Mark Hellinger, patterned the tale after the tabloid newspaper stories he wrote in his youth, and he narrates the picture with the same kind of terse but poignant vitality that was the hallmark of his sensational prose. Though basically a crime story – with, oddly, only character actor Fitzgerald as its star – the film is also a romance with the city itself, one where Hellinger embraces soiled urchins and immaculate society ladies with equal passion. Shot completely on location in New York City, The Naked City chronicles the grim urban landscape and depicts its everyday life and citizens, embracing swank Fifth Avenue, Broadway, kids playing hop-skip-and-jump in the streets, straphangers en route to work and back on the crowded subways. More than 100 locations were employed, with the brilliant cameraman Daniels shooting most of his scenes from inside a van parked along the streets, using a one-way mirror and tinted windows so that passers-by were oblivious to the camera’s presence. In the late 1950s and early 60s, a long-running ABC TV series used this film’s title to show the “slice-of-life” style of drama the original film typified, and also employed Hellinger’s postscript in this, his last feature production, a line which became a household phrase: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
– TV Guide.

Jules Dassin’s The Naked City was shot in dozens of locations in New York City, offering a vividly docudramatic sense of routine and place that’s affirmed by Mark Hellinger’s initially intriguing but eventually grating narration. The famed columnist turned producer most memorably identifies different neighborhoods and their interlocking relationships, his voiceover complementing anecdotes that suggest the typical lifecycle of the city before a more traditional plot kicks in. Such specificity is thrilling and unusual even today, as cities like New York and Los Angeles are still too often utilized vaguely as shorthand for cinematic myth-peddling. Spare offices, alternately bustling and desolate streets, harbors, and cramped low-income housing inform this film with a quiet and consistent urgency, illustrating in direct physical terms the class tensions that drive the plot. One can draw a direct line from The Naked City to Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets and On the Waterfront, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, among others.

The film’s central plot is both revolutionary and sentimental, animated by Hellinger’s desire to translate his folksy columns to the cinema as a celebration of the intertwining infrastructures that comprise New York City as a synecdoche for America. Hellinger’s devotion to this idea allows for details that are now common of police shows and films, as many passages here concern fingerprinting, fabric analysis, and the successes and dead ends that result from interviewing witnesses. However, this sense of specificity doesn’t extend to many of the characters themselves, especially the police, who generally suggest white knights.

In its emphasis on procedure over character, and on grit as a way to lend verisimilitude to dime-store twists, The Naked City established the template for the seemingly deathless television warhorse Law & Order and its offspring. And The Naked City has the very same limitation as Law & Order, as its fanatical devotion to “the system” squanders the sense of personal obsession and neuroses that drives classic noir and crime films. The film’s inciting incident, the murder of a model named Jean Dexter, is motivated by the usual mixtures of greed and sexual longing that one often expects of the murder mystery genre, but the revelations have no troubling or erotic charge. With one brief exception, Dexter’s absence doesn’t haunt The Naked City as, say, the eponymous victim haunted Otto Preminger’s Laura.

This exception is startling, however, and stands as one of The Naked City’s finest moments. When the investigators leading the case — self-consciously hambone veteran Lt. Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and young buck detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) — find Dexter’s estranged parents, Mr. and Mrs. Batory (Grover Burgess and Adelaide Klein), the film takes an abrupt and devastating turn into melodrama. The Batorys are small-town folks who resented Dexter’s attraction to the “fast” city, and Mrs. Batory seems particularly steadfast in her assertion that Dexter deserved her fate. When the mother sees the daughter dead at the morgue though, she collapses into tears — an action that Klein invests with agonizing gravity. Here, the film’s structural and technical ambitions are usurped by a scene that frankly acknowledges the tolls of death. Another moment late in the film has a similar intensity, when Halloran finds one of the perpetrators, a stout ex-wrestler, Willy Garzah (Ted de Corsia), hiding out in an apartment so small it casually suggests a cage. De Corsia’s primordial, ravenously embittered energy is unsettling, imbuing the film with authentic suspense.

Seen through a contemporary prism, The Naked City is potentially more uncomfortable than it was ever intended to be, as Hellinger’s faith in law and order is charged in an era wracked by existential arguments over the necessity as well as the specific nature of police reform. Halloran and especially Muldoon are fantasies who live to serve and who are decisively troubled by no personal matters or human concerns — charismatic, reassuring ciphers with cute ticks who would influence many future police characters on film and TV alike. Depending on your own political convictions, this fantasy is either poignant, insidiously misleading, or both.

Halloran and Muldoon are opposing simplifications, then, while the truth of the matter is thornier, unveiled by minute considerations of platform, education, and economic and racial reevaluations that are seemingly impossible to communicate to the mass public, by filmmakers and politicians alike. Yet, The Naked City’s glorious compositions tell their own truth, offering a portrait of a city that’s teeming with honor and evil and decay and beauty, as well as irreconcilable mixtures of all of the above.
– Chuck Bowen, Slant Magazine, 2 October 2020.

The Naked City boasts a new 4K restoration, culled together from many sources, that looks and sounds superb. The Naked City’s image has been rendered with revelatory attention to detail. This transfer is a feast of pristine and revealing cityscapes and architecture. Gradations of light and shadow are nuanced and wide-ranging, from the rising sunlight that illuminates a harbor at the cusp of dawn, to the shrill overhead lighting of various office buildings, to the darkness that shrouds the streets at night. Fabric and facial details are also exacting, and the grain here is generally quite healthy, allowing of course for the fluctuations that come with shooting on the fly in an unpredictable environment. The monaural soundtrack is similarly sturdy, and the score by Miklós Rózsa and Frank Skinner has never sounded lusher.
– Chuck Bowen, Slant Magazine, 2 October 2020.

Back to Screening information