The Naked City: Criterion Collection Review
1948. Over an aerial view of skyscrapers, the voice of producer Mark Hellinger introduces us to his film, The Naked City. New York is a city which rises and (almost) sleeps, lives and breathes, as ordinary men and women go about their lives. But in an apartment a model called Jean Dexter lies dead in her bathtub…
On its first release in 1948, The Naked City was undoubtedly an exciting, up-to-the-minute film, groundbreaking in its mix of documentary and drama. It more or less established the “police-buddy” genre, which has been a staple of television cop shows ever since. In fact it became a TV series itself, ten years later. But that was fifty-nine years ago, and nowadays those innovations have become staple tropes, if not clichés. So while it’s harder to appreciate the film’s originality, it still stands up as an involving, noir-tinged thriller, ably directed by Jules Dassin.
Before this film, screen crime tended to be solved by individuals: private investigators such as Sherlock Holmes or more recently Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. What The Naked City emphasises is that crime is solved by means of teamwork: policemen who are, like everyone else in this film, doing their job, earning their daily bread and at the end of each day going back to their wives and families. There’s a lot of simple hard work rather than inspiration and deduction, but it gets the desired results. In charge of the investigation is Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald). He’s allowed his individuating eccentricities – his Irishisms, in short - but he functions as very much the head of a team. It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that The Naked City values the solid work and craft of artisans over the insights of a lone artist, something that Dana Polan discusses in his interview elsewhere on this disc.
But as Mark Hellinger – who was a famous newspaper columnist and sadly died of a heart attack before the film was released – says in his famous line at the end of the film, there are eight million stories in the naked city and this was just one of them. If anything the city is the star. Inspired perhaps by earlier “city symphony” films which began with the 1927 Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and perhaps by Italian neo-realist films which were just beginning to have an impact, and certainly drawing on the photographs of “Weegee” (Arthur Fellig) from whose book the title derives, The Naked City was shot entirely on location. The cinematographer was William Daniels, known up to then as a master of studio artifice: he was Greta Garbo’s DP of choice. But he proves himself just as adept at grainy realism, with some noirish use of shadows in some sequences. He won an Oscar, as did Paul Weatherwax for his editing.
From time to time we seem to leave the police-procedural plot and eavesdrop on ordinary New Yorkers, at work or on the train home, and sometimes we overhear their thoughts, rather like the angels in Wings of Desire. This elements of the film’s structure – written by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald, from a story by Wald – seem more unusual now than the much-imitated police plotline. They’re the sort of thing that a strictly formulaic three-act screenplay would leave out, and that’s one reason why the film stands up as well as it does.
The Naked City is number 380 in the Criterion Collection and is released on a single dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 1 only.
The film was shot in black and white - no doubt for the greater realism that afforded over colour at the time. As a product of the pre-widescreen era it was shot in Academy Ratio and so is presented in 4:3, with no anamorphic enhancement necessary. As is Criterion’s practice with their 4:3 releases, the transfer is “windowboxed”, that is with thin black bars on all four sides, in order to avoid parts of the picture being lost to overscan. The picture is sharp with good contrast and a pleasingly film-like grain. There are some minor scratches and spots but nothing distracting.
The soundtrack is the original mono, of which nothing much needs to be said that it’s a good example of Hollywood professionalism, with dialogue, music and sound effects very well balanced. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are included: oddly, they have to be selected via your remote and not via an on-screen menu.
The commentary is provided solo by MalvinWald. I’m not wishing to be ageist, but Wald is as sharp as a tack with his memory intact (given that he must be at least eighty-five). He’s also up-to-date in his references: Pulp Fiction for its innovations in story structure, Do the Right Thing for its evocation of a hot New York summer day, NYPD Blue as a latter-day example of a cop-buddy drama. He tends to describe what we see on screen rather too much, but it’s an informative commentary all the same.
New York University film professor Dana Polan is interviewed (28:09). He discusses the film in the context of post-War American society. We may be cogs in one vast machine, and can be replaced, says Polan, but this film says that ordinary working men do have value. On the other featurette James Sanders (author of Celluloid Skyline) discusses the film’s use of New York locations (26:04), many of which are still there to this day. For example, when the cops take a lift up the side of a building under construction, it’s Universal’s New York headquarters-to-be. Both of these interviews are 16:9 anamorphic.
Jules Dassin does not participate in this DVD as such. (Born in 1911, he’s still alive as I write this, but I have no idea of his state of health.) However, he is featured in an interview recorded at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art after a screening of Rififi. It runs 40:41. The sound and picture quality (1.78:1 non-anamorphic) is not the greatest. Dassin is interviewed by Bruce Goldstein and takes questions from the audience. These are more specific to Dassin’s career as a whole and to Rififi in particular than to The Naked City. Dassin talks a little slowly and can be excused the occasional rambling, but it’s worth sticking with.
The extras on the disc are concluded by a stills gallery. The packaging indicates a theatrical trailer but there isn’t one included. However, there is the usual Criterion booklet (twelve pages plus covers) which contains the usual lists of chapters and credits, DVD transfer details and credits and two other items. One is an essay, “New York Plays Itself” by Luc Sante and the other is a brief note to Dassin from Mark Hellinger about the film’s final chase sequence. (Don’t read this before watching the film.)
Some old films are safely established as classics, which continue to be enjoyed to this day. Others slip into obscurity, and could bear rediscovery. The Naked City sits somewhere in between: a film which is known and whose place in history is assured, but somehow not as watched or celebrated as it might be. Criterion – who are doing well by Jules Dassin, with editions of Thieves’ Highway, Rififi, Night and the City already out, and Brute Force forthcoming – do their customary fine job by it.