Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 25 April 2007
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
In America the period surrounding the Second World War was a time of great societal upheaval. Beginning in the great depression and continuing through into the late 40’s, questions of class and equality began to be voiced more prominently, the figure of the American working man taking on mythic status in art and especially literature. Cinema was slow to take up this trend, for a number of reasons. For one, censorship was far stricter than in other media, the reins of propriety fastened that much tighter. For another, cinema was principally used as an escapist art form, and who wants to escape into a life of work and drudgery? Third, and perhaps most importantly, Hollywood was a land of privilege and aspiration, and as Preston Sturges gleefully pointed out in Sullivan’s Travels, its idea of real life was somewhat wide of the mark.
But by 1948, when The Naked City was released, things were starting to change. Crime pictures had begun to mutate into films noir, exploring the filthy underbelly of American life. Women’s pictures like Mildred Pierce showed that housewives, at least, enjoyed sympathising with characters just like themselves. And the screens were still full of war pictures, many of which featured a cast of largely working class characters in heroic positions, enduring shared crises and victories.
The Naked City was produced and narrated by Mark Hellinger, a one time newspaperman in thrall to the photographs of Weegee, after whose celebrated first hardcover collection the film was named. Inspired by De Sica and the other neo-realists, Hellinger’s express intention was to create a film in which New York, the city itself, was to be the star. They would film on real streets, crowded with real people, telling a believable, down to earth story in which the average cinemagoer could see himself reflected, perhaps even a little glorified.
The film depicts the everyday lives of a pair of homicide detectives investigating a headline murder case. When glamorous clothing model Jean Dexter is found strangled in her bathtub, Lieutenant Dan Muldoon enlists up-and-comer Jimmy Halloran to help him solve the case. Together the two detectives, along with a whole squad room of assisting officers, gradually reconstruct the details of Dexter’s life: her boyfriends, her parties, her lucrative sideline as a tipoff girl for jewel thieves.
As film expert Dana Polan points out in the interview which accompanies this Criterion edition of the film, Hellinger and his screenwriters take great pains to make these policemen seem as down to earth as possible. Their working lives are repetitive, even dull, a routine in which hard graft and legwork are as important as inspiration. And they are prone to the forces of chance and coincidence, luck both good and bad. They are painstaking and dedicated, but stolid and resolutely unglamorous: these are characters the working man can relate to.
In this way the film bears the marks of an awakened social conscience, and it’s no coincidence that both co-writer Albert Maltz and director Jules Dassin would later face trouble from HUAC. They take pains to present lead detective Muldoon as staunchly working class, boiling eggs in his tiny railroad apartment, humming an Irish folk song as goes. His partner Halloran lives on a tree-lined suburban street, and wrestles with the moral consequences of fatherly discipline. By contrast, their two most visible adversaries both hail from a higher social plane—privileged playboy Niles, who squandered all the opportunities life gave him, and uptown doctor Stoneman, in thrall to the dead girl’s numerous charms.
On an aesthetic level the film is immaculate, William Daniels’ shimmering photography capturing buildings and faces alike in intimate detail. The acting is rough edged but serviceable, the central characters familiar but nicely defined by a few key traits—Muldoon’s wry experience, Halloran’s clean cut eagerness. The direction is unusually simplistic for Dassin, but he gets the chance to cut loose when the climactic chase arrives, all sharp metallic angles and jarring POV. During this entire sequence the city skyline barely leaves the frame, the camera’s eye consistently drawn back to that implacable wall of stone, unknowing and disinterested in the events unfolding on it’s peripheries. When the villainous Garzah falls to his death it isn’t to his crumpled corpse that our attention is drawn, but back to the city, framed within the steel buttresses of the Williamsburg bridge.
The film falters when it comes to unveiling information—several narrative twists are painfully obvious long before they occur to the police, and the script is rife with coincidence. The narration, too, is problematic, if admittedly rather charming. Starting off like a prehistoric attempt at a DVD commentary, introducing the director and key cast, the voiceover soon assumes the familiar characteristics of an early Disney nature documentary, as Hellinger introduces us to the city and its characters. The narration comes complete with dry ironies and snatches of stolen dialogue, talking to the characters, questioning their actions, like a bemused but impotent God, observant but unable to affect the events onscreen. This feeling of being educated doesn’t wane as the film progresses—it’s clear Hellinger feels that, more than providing entertainment, he’s performing some sort of social service, educating people about the world around them. The efficacy of this tactic is questionable—the film is sensationalist and often rather ludicrous, and beyond providing a certain insight into police methodology it’s hard to see what might have been learned (it’s hard to take a film seriously when the master villain turns out to be a harmonica-playing wrestler who steals jewels for a living).
In fact, The Naked City probably works much better for modern audiences than it ever did for it’s contemporaries. For us, it acts as a unique window into the past, into a New York City which is at once oddly familiar and completely unrecognisable. The city is prosperous and overwhelmingly white, clean and good natured, and a single non-celebrity murder can still make headlines. But children still break hydrants and dive into the East River, businessmen still crowd the trains, and the skyline is eerily identical, particularly now. If nothing else, The Naked City would stand as a beautifully photographed historical record. But luckily there’s more to enjoy—likeable characters, some dry humour and an all-time classic chase sequence.