The Naked City Review

Film Review by Gary Couzens

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.

As with the Arrow DVD of Brute Force, this disc of The Naked City is a pale shadow of the Criterion release. Equally, it's also not too bad. The 4:3 monochrome image is grainy and contains some scratches. But the contrast is rather better than on Brute Force and, once again, the detail is acceptable. The mono soundtrack is fairly good although seems excessively hissy. The only extra is the theatrical trailer.

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