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The Naked City

The Naked City(1948)

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Jules Dassin's groundbreaking The Naked City (1948) wasn't the first time Hollywood literally took to the streets of New York. After American film was born there, then moved west, March of Time mastermind Louis de Rochemont and director Henry Hathaway took the documentary approach back to Manhattan in The House on 92nd Street (1945), with its Yorkville settings an integral part of that WW II spy-hunt melodrama. But The Naked City moved the camera out of a single neighborhood in a big way, crisply and fluidly exploding into the streets – 107 locations in all -- ranging from Bellevue Hospital's morgue to the neon canyons of Times Square, from Stillman's Gym to nightclub owner Toots Shor's borrowed apartment, from the Lower East Side to its climactic Williamsburg Bridge shootout. Coursing through the streets and subways of a bustling, self-confident New York secure in thinking of itself as the center of the postwar universe, it gave birth not only to the famous TV series to which it lent its name from 1958 to 1963. It's the fountain from which to this day springs the modern police procedural, with its migration to TV. Here's where Dragnet, Miami Vice, NYPD Blue and CSI began.

The cops in The Naked City are part of a collective workforce that not only streams into the city each day on the subways, but reinvented the cop genre before the cameras even rolled, presenting to an America yearning for postwar stability a committed civilian army of what William H. Whyte later was to term organization men, reassuring the citizenry that if all wasn't well, it could be made well, thanks to the dogged, untiring efforts of working men who went home tired every night, but did their jobs in a city that was not only functioning, but confident. The real NYPD willingly supplied the protracted cram course soaked up by Army Air Force Film Unit vet and writer Malvin Wald, whose original idea was augmented by producer and ex-newspaper columnist Mark Hellinger's connections, ranging from Walter Winchell to mayor William O'Dwyer, assuring Wald and the film maximum and unprecedented access.

Its fresh take on big city crime represented a confluence of styles – the dynamic city portraits of Walter Ruttman's Berlin, Symphony of a Big City (1927) and Dziga Vertov's Man with a Camera (1929), the oft-cited Italian neo-realists, and the resourceful techniques devised by filmmakers in WW II armed services film units, liberated from studio methods. Paul Weatherwax won an Oscar® for the unflagging rhythms of his editing. William Daniels, reinventing himself after being known as Garbo's cameraman, won a black-and-white cinematography Oscar® for his arresting and often startlingly beautiful Manhattan images. Even Hellinger, who wrote and spoke the voiceover narration a la Orson Welles, democratically alternates between godlike omniscience and attempts to talk to the characters and get inside their heads. This new kind of police procedural represented a merger of the highest standard of Hollywood craft, done on the run and off the cuff, and the tabloid immediacy (and borrowed title) of the book of candid photos by Albert Felig, who called himself Weegee.

Fusing strands of fictionalized real-life crimes, it entwines jewel thefts and the murder of an ambitious young woman in her West 83d Street apartment. The crime isn't solved by a brilliant Sherlockian sleuth or by a tough lone gumshoe, but by a police team of lab technicians and cops doing lots of legwork. They're headed by a homicide inspector who never fires a shot or pursues anyone, but who interrogates and integrates the pieces into a big picture. Barry Fitzgerald claimed he was too old to persuasively play a cop, so Hellinger divided the cop in two – with Fitzgerald as the brains and Don Taylor as his young protégé, who does the legwork and the shooting at the end. Before we're even aware that he's a cop, we see Taylor as just another wage slave, leaving his wife, kid, and modest Astoria semi-detached, joining the morning flow of men in suits and ties who daily coalesce into a mass of subway straphangers.

Fitzgerald's guru overcomes his own Irish stereotype, cemented by his Oscar®-winning priest opposite Bing Crosby in 1944 in Going My Way (1944). He plays down mannerisms and what could have been the fey, whimsical cuteness of a leprechaun persona to convince as the case-hardened old pro whose most intense outburst of passion is reserved for his working-class outrage upon hearing that a suspect spent $50 wining and dining a woman in a nightclub – a weekly sum on which he once supported a family. He's a forerunner of Peter Falk's Columbo, acting mostly by listening, saving the blockbuster question until the end, then delivering it as if it was a parenthetical afterthought. And of Dennis Franz's Andy Sipowicz, who knows when it's time to take the gloves off during an interrogation. He's as shrewd and unflappable as his subordinate is antsy. But you do feel in Taylor's gawky straight arrow the unswerving desire to be a good cop.

Dassin calls upon his experience with the Group Theater and Yiddish theater and loads the cast with New York stage and radio veterans. Tom Pedi's sleepy-eyed investigating cop projects underplayed astuteness. Saying little, but making us feel his non-stop concentration, he sidesteps stereotyped Brooklynese. Howard Duff, radio's Sam Spade, is a keen-edged heel. Hellinger and Dassin had cast him in their 1947 prison drama, Brute Force, and knew he could project toughness. From the Yiddish theater Dassin recruited Molly Picon's street vendor and David Opatoshu's cop. Ted De Corsia's burly killer reflects a piece of advice a real cop offered, namely that an outlaw could hole up more undetectably on the Lower East Side than out of town. He seems connected to his world, even as he flees through a prophetically symbolic lot of tombstones for sale. There's even a whiff of potential anarchy in the teeming spillover of the melting pot Lower East Side, a contrast to the other, homogeneous Manhattan elsewhere.

The Naked City never piles on the social comment, yet makes sure it's there. It does all the evoking it needs to do – and then some. Photographed with freshness, urgency and beauty, it's vibrant art, a crisp, crackling pop myth. It did seem to open under a dark cloud, though. Hellinger died before it was released. And ironically, the film's endorsement of the system and its message -- namely that American society and its authority figures in the pre-Watergate, pre-Serpico era were functional and just -- didn't keep Dassin and screenwriter Albert Maltz (brought in to sharpen and polish Wald's script) from being blacklisted during the Red Scare. But whether in its time or ours, one can't overstate the film's seminal importance. Its newness was paid the ultimate Hollywood compliment of mystification. Universal executives had seen nothing like it before. They wanted to bury it, unmoved by the fact that a rooftop interrogation scene was filmed atop the unfinished Park Avenue building that was to house the studio's New York offices. But lawyers for the Hellinger estate held firm to the contractual terms, and it was released. Although Dassin later said he wept when he saw how it had been cut, removing bits of humanizing portraiture, The Naked City was a hit. It has defined and shaped police procedurals ever since. As narrator Hellinger famously says, "There are eight million stories in The Naked City. This has been one of them." It still is.

As usual, the Criterion Collection extras, all of which contributed to this piece, are exemplary. Wald fascinatingly talks us through The Naked City in a featurette as long as the film itself. NYU film prof Dana Polan provides enriching social and historical context. Architect James Sanders speaks illuminatingly on the NYC locations. And in footage filmed during a 2004 tribute at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art, Dassin bares his own Naked City anecdotes, revealingly and with generosity of spirit, displaying little bitterness over being railroaded out of Hollywood. It helped that his career flourished in Europe, with, among other films, Night and the City (1950), Rififi (1954) and Never on Sunday (1960). Fittingly, he has the last word, as grace and charm yield to moving recollections of his late wife, the actress and Greek cultural minister Melina Mercouri, and his ongoing efforts to complete her mission of retrieving from the British Museum the Parthenon marbles and repatriating them to Greece.

For more information about The Naked City, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Naked City, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay Carr