The Naked City Movie Review

Shot on the streets of New York City in an era when most films were filmed on back lots, Naked City is both groundbreaking and riveting. The story follows detectives investigating the murder of a dress model. The Naked City broke away from the glossy sophistication of 1940s noir. Its omniscient narrator and the grainy, documentary style were bold innovations.

Storyline

In a time when most movies were shot on studio backlots, director Jules Dassin and producer Mark Hellinger took to the streets of New York to shoot this seminal police procedural. The film opens with a reminder that “every day there are eight million stories in the naked city,” then zeroes in on one: a murder that leads detectives Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor to Stillman’s Gym, the old Essex Market at Norfolk and Rivington, a corner candy store, Roosevelt Hospital, and the city morgue, among other places (107 locations in all). The cast is huge, and Hellinger himself does a terrific job of performing the constant narration, adding to the documentary-like style.

The Naked City is an early example of social-realist urban drama, and a precursor to the police procedurals that would dominate television and movies in the postwar years. Its use of real locations and actual city dwellers (the actors are all recognizable New Yorkers, and the crowds on the streets are real) contributes to a sense of gritty realism that sets it apart from other films of its era.

Criterion has outfitted this edition of The Naked City with a gorgeous transfer and some solid extras. Film professor Dana Polan’s two archive interviews offer the most insightful commentary, with her arguing that the film’s “blandness” is a response to working-class men who returned from war feeling like anonymous cogs in machines. Other extras include correspondence between Hellinger and Dassin, a stills gallery, and an essay by historian James Sanders.

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Cast

Before The Naked City, films shot in New York had been largely filmed on Hollywood backlots, and only since the conversion to sound had movies been able to use real New York locations. But director Dassin and producer Mark Hellinger decided to use the camera to reveal the gritty nature of NYC, and their lookmovies film became one of the first to demonstrate the routine detective work that goes into solving a murder.

The plot revolves around the murder of a dress model, and the police detectives involved in the case are shown doing all the routine things that must be done to track down suspects. Detectives interview witnesses, chase down leads and visit the places where a body might be hidden. And even a simple chase on the Williamsburg Bridge is shot in a way that uses the camera to add drama and suspense.

Barry Fitzgerald and Dana Andrews give solid performances as the stoic detectives who are pressured by their superior to find the truth about the murder. And Howard Duff is a bravura actor as the social cad who fools everyone but the cops.

The extras on this DVD include two interviews that offer insightful analysis of the movie and its impact. NYU film professor Dana Polan offers a very thorough discussion that explains the film’s innovations to the genre. Also featured is an archive commentary from 1996 with screenwriter Malvin Wald, who discusses how the movie influenced TV shows and initiated the buddy cop formula.

Director

Jules Dassin is best known for his masterpieces ‘Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes’ and ‘Night and the City’, but this film is also a good example of how he could work with more than one actor. He chose Barry Fitzgerald as the cynical police lieutenant and Don Taylor as his inexperienced partner, both of whom are excellent. He was also able to bring out the nuances of each character and create a good story with them.

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The real star here though is New York itself, used with amazing authenticity. In a time when most movies were shot on studio backlots, this was one of the first to be made on location. Hellinger and Dassin were able to capture the energy of the streets with such a vivid sense of documentary realism that they would inspire filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (‘Taxi Driver’) and Spike Lee (‘Do the Right Thing’).

Spare offices, alternately bustling and desolate harbors, narrow apartment kitchens, rush hour subways, crowded sidewalks and even the Williamsburg Bridge were brought to the screen in ways that no other film had before. The Naked City was also an important early statement about the potential of the police to curb criminality by working as part of a system. It is interesting to note that many of the people involved in this innovative project were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the years following its release.

Overall

In 1948, at a time when mainstream Hollywood was still absorbing the lessons of Italian neorealism and the techniques of documentary filmmaking, The Naked City broke through with a gritty realism that made it one of the most influential crime films of all time. It did so without resorting to street language or bloody corpses, and it relied instead on a tightly constructed scene-by-scene approach. Barry Fitzgerald is excellent as a stoic detective, and the parents of the murder victim give heart wrenching performances.

The film’s success is helped by the evocative visual style, which won Oscars for both editing and cinematography. New York also stars as a character in its own right, and Dassin’s use of location shooting, subway shots, and views of the city from various vantage points adds to the film’s authenticity. The soundtrack is haunting and intense, and the terse journalistic-style narration by Mark Hellinger is a departure from the way police movies were previously written.

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This special edition of The Naked City features a very informative interview (28m 11s) with film scholar Dana Polan from 2006. She analyzes the film in terms of post-World War II existential anxieties, suggesting that Halloran and Muldoon’s refusal to show compassion for murder victims is indicative of the police’s faith in law and order in an era rife with debates over social justice.

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