Naked City
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Naked City

It is fairly common for movies to become television series and vice versa in the early days of TV this wasn’t the case. One of the first films to get the small screen transition is what we have for consideration here, ‘The Naked City’. With a theatrical release in 1948 it preceded its televised cousin by a full decade. The movie remains one of the defining examples of the crime drama, a genre that has been a perpetual staple for both formats. ‘The Naked City’ received only a few of the standard honorifics with Academy Award win in editing and cinematography but it was recognized by Film Registry maintained by the Library of Congress for preservation due to its significant cultural contribution. As a native New Yorker this film holds a certain nostalgic value of a City in an eternal state of change yet steadfast in its intrinsic vitality. There were names listed in the cast that were quite well known at the time but the real star, the true central character here is the city itself. The tag line became famous and forever associated with NYC, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." Some might feel this film is archaic, technically inferior or severely dated. It is true that the movie is in Black and White and in the former academy ratio of 4:3 and monaural audio but if that inhibits you from watching this than you can not consider yourself a cinemaphile. This movie is representative of how a filmmaker could create a masterpiece before the creators of our current state of technology was even born. This film became the template for much of the crime dramas that would follow. It was shot almost entirely in the streets and buildings of the city as proudly noted by the narrator. The cameras used for film have undergone a drastic reduction in size over the years but in 1948 this in itself was quite an innovation as recognized by its Oscar. The genius of the director, Jules Dassin, was how seamlessly he incorporated the unique look and feel of New York City into the story. The undeniable pulse of the city is infused in every frame of the film.

The film suitably starts at 1 am. In most venues this would be a time of sleep but New York is already active. It is a hot summer night and the inhabitants are winding up the night shifts and making the daily transition into the new day. A housekeeper, Martha Swenson (Virginia Mullen), working on the Upper East Side lets herself into an apartment to begin her routine but is shocked to see the lifeless body of the young model that lived there, Jean Dexter. While William H. Daniels earned his Oscar for his exceptional camera work it was hoe the movie’s editor Paul Weatherwax, splice that footage together that provided him with his golden statue. The various main characters were shown through intercutting scenes occurring at the same time giving a jittery feel that lends itself ideally to the crime and subsequent investigation. It is a textbook example of how critical editing is not only to the pacing established by the director but as an emotional foundation for the entire piece.

Catching the case of Miss Dexter’s violent demise is veteran homicide detective, Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald). This proud son of the Emerald Isle has years of experience substantiating his well tuned gut instinct. Partnered with the seasoned lieutenant is a younger detective, Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor); the pair gets started with the investigation as soon as the medical examiner on site declares the death a murder. Familiar now but novel over sixty years ago was the depiction of the modern investigation methods brought to bear on the case. A forensics technician is busy gathering fingerprints while another documents every aspect of the crime scene with photographs. A search of the apartment uncovers the first tangible piece of evidence, a pair of men’s pajamas. Back then that was not something found in a single woman’s home. The housekeeper tells the detectives they might belong to a Mr. Henderson, a man the victim previous dated. She also had a prior relationship with another man, Frank Niles (Howard Duff). It is noted that some expensive pieces of jewelry were missing. From the audience perspective all of this cast the victim in a morally dubious light. This was further exasperated when the detectives locate and question the model’s psychiatrist, Dr. Stoneman (House Jameson), who prescribed the pills found in Dexter’s apartment. Her parents are notified and asked about their daughter informing them she was obsessed with the rich and famous, moving out of the family home and taking up a promiscuous life style.

Piece by piece Muldoon and Halloran gather the facts to isolate suspects and close in on the perpetrator. This attention to the process in such a realistic fashion was innovative for films of the time. While many movies depicted the intricacies of a police investigation the focus was typically on the detective, inevitably portrayed by a star. Here, despite the fact Fitzgerald was a considerably well known actor the concentration in this film was on the process, the methodical search for clues and deductive ability of the detective in charge. This emphasis is present in every facet of the film, most notably in the opening. Average New Yorkers, some not even aware they were being included in the movie. This laid the foundation that this film was not about a particular character as much as it was concerned with life and death in a city that keeps moving on. Some of the voiceovers used added a touch of comic relief as a mother laments having an infant prone to awakening at 6 am or two young women window shopping during their lunch break. One element of movies that has been overlooked with the advent of color photography is how expressive black and white film can be. The shadows lengthen as the day proceeds, the street lamps illuminate the streets and people go about their lives unaware that a murder took place a matter of blocks away. The best copy of this film is the Criterion Collection edition. As always the go to great length to preserve the integrity of the film by offering the best possible video and audio possible.

Audio commentary by screenwriter Malvin Wald
A new video interview with NYU film professor Dana Polan
An analysis of the film's NY locations by Celluloid Skyline author James Sanders
Footage of Jules Dassin from his 2004 appearance at Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Theatrical Trailer
Stills gallery
Plus: A new essay by Luc Sante and production notes from producer Mark Hellinger to Dassin

Posted 07/28/12

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