When television was ‘new’ in the 1950s, we all enjoyed the catchphrases repeated during each episode of a cop show or a quiz show and even the ads (that first appeared on ITV in the mid 1950s in the UK). One phrase I remember from childhood is “There are eight million stories in the naked city and this has been one of them.” This formed the closing voiceover of each episode of The Naked City (1958-1963) a series of first 30 minute and later 60 minute episodes of a cop show set in New York and very popular in the UK. But as a young person I also knew that there was an earlier film with the same title and I remember a startling still from my film encyclopedia. That film is now available in a sparkling print on MUBI in the UK. And it’s terrific.
The Naked City is a Mark Hellinger production, directed by Jules Dassin and written by Albert Maltz and Marvin Wald with photography by William H. Daniels and music by Miklós Rózsa and Frank Skinner. Its key ingredient is the location footage of New York in the stiflingly hot summer of 1947. In some ways I could have enjoyed the film almost as a documentary about life on the streets of the city without worrying about the police procedural aspects of the film. I learned, for instance, that New York once had double-decker buses. The one shown, as a detective traipses through the streets following up leads, served 25th and 7th Avenues. The tone of the film is set by Mark Hellinger’s witty voiceover which introduces the story. He questions what we might think about the daily life of the city as it moves from night-time into morning – much like those ‘city symphony’ documentaries of the 1920s and 1930s. But he also introduces the narrative as a procedural, making sure we understand how the police set about investigating a crime and emphasising the different personnel involved and the legwork that is necessary.
The narrative is based on a murder that is eventually reported to the Homicide Squad of the 10th Precinct based in Chelsea. The case is assigned to the team led by Lt. Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and his young partner Detective Halloran (Don Taylor). Barry Fitzgerald was the diminutive Irish actor brought to Hollywood by John Ford, for whom he gave excellent supporting role performances in several of Ford’s best films, including as a matchmaker in The Quiet Man (1952). He was known for his comedic gifts, often played in conjunction with the comparatively large/tall major stars he played against (e.g. John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in Ford’s films). Fitzgerald was the lead in The Naked City and at only 5′ 3″ he was cast opposite the 6′ 1″ Taylor as Halloran, arguably the young and attractive character who is the way into the story for the audience – we experience his home life with a young boy and and a wife tormented by lack of sleep. Muldoon is the wily old detective, taking a fatherly interest in his hard-working but slightly naive young companion.
The leading suspect in the murder of a glamorous fashion model is Frank Niles (Howard Duff). Duff had starred in Dassin and Hellinger’s previous film Brute Force (1947). He was also known as the voice of Dashiell Hammett’s ‘Sam Spade’ on the radio. Here is handsome but decidedly shifty and Muldoon sets out to trap him into making contradictory statements which start the investigation going. The investigation is pleasingly complex -it’s only afterwards that we remember we’ve been shown the whole crime at the start of the film. Instead we follow Halloran as he painstakingly finds the murderer and eventually corners him. The whole selling point of the film and the subsequent TV series was that the cases to be investigated were ‘taken from the streets’ rather than created by studio writers. (IMDb offers a list of all the major locations used in New York City.) The location shooting supports the idea that we are being offered a genuine ‘slice of life’. In this respect The Naked City had something in common with the attention being given to the neo-realist films slowly beginning to be seen in American arthouse cinemas and therefore by some mainstream filmmakers. The big difference was that films like The Naked City had to be more clearly recognised as genre films that could be distributed by the studios to their own cinema chains. The connections to neo-realism were thus mainly at the level of location photography, especially on the city streets. The Naked City was both a procedural and an exciting action film with a major set piece chase taking up the last twenty minutes of the narrative and featuring scenes on the Williamsburg Bridge. Hellinger’s voiceover features again during the chase and accompanied by the exciting musical score offers distinctive Hollywood entertainment.
The Naked City turned out to be a highly influential film for both cinematic and televisual filmmakers over the next ten to twenty years. Originally produced by Hellinger for Universal it would later become a hit TV show for Columbia Screen Gems. Hellinger died soon after the film was completed. This might explain why it took so long for a TV version to appear. In the meantime, He Walked By Night (US 1948), a similar ‘semi-documentary’ police procedural set in Los Angeles, saw a form of adaptation into the Dragnet radio (1949-57) and then TV series (1951-59) starring Jack Webb.
The print offered by MUBI is a restoration following the same procedures as the one for Brute Force (1947). You can watch a Criterion DVD/Blu-ray and also find on the Criterion website a useful essay on the film by Lucy Sante plus a piece on Jules Dassin and a discussion by Michael Sragow of a later documentary about the making of the film. Sragow suggests that the final release cut of The Naked City had studio-imposed cuts that removed some of Dassin’s political points made through juxtaposition of the poverty on the streets with the glamorous apartments and jewellery shops of the rich. YouTube offers an introduction to the film by the director John Sayles. The restoration is also available to rent on Apple TV in the UK and on Amazon and other streamers (only in SD?). Amazon also carries some episodes of the TV series. If you haven’t seen the film it is definitely worth taking a look.