‘There are 8 million stories in the Naked City, this has been one of them’.
‘The Naked City’ was made in 1948, directed by Jules Dassin. This is based on a story by Malvin Wald. The release of this film marked the untimely death of Producer Mark Hellinger, whose personal romance with the City of New York was one of the most dearest and ecstatic affairs of the modern day with brilliant story telling in the voice-over mode and the narrator being none other than the producer Mark Hellinger himself in his last attempt.
This movie is filmed entirely on location in New York, and often out in the streets, apartments, shops and offices of that great city, bucked the studio-shot trend. Where the films mentioned above evolved from an amalgamation of 1930s gangster & detective films, pulp fiction novels, and German expressionism. This movie portrays the selective observation of life in New York’s streets, police stations, apartments, tenements, playgrounds, docks, bridges and flashy resorts. Naked City in these influences adds in a momentous dose of Italian neo-realism, using not only location shots, but also using some non-professional actors in supporting roles and focusing in on ‘ordinary’ people and their stories.
The film depicts the police investigation that follows the murder of a young model. A veteran cop is placed in charge of the case and he sets about, with the help of other beat cops and detectives, to find the girl’s killer. The movie, shot partially in documentary style, on the location on the streets of New York City and features landmarks such as the Williamsburg Bridge, the Whitehall Building, and an apartment building on West 83rd Street in Manhattan as the scene of the murder.
Compelling a look at the early film noir classics are set, if not in Los Angeles, then someplace in southern California. You can name Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Even when set a bit further afield, such as the San Francisco of The Maltese Falcon, the movies were shot in studios and some of the usual locations in Hollywood. The interesting point here is that ‘The Naked City’ is considered as a landmark film as it received two Academy Awards, one for cinematography for William H. Daniels, and another for film editing to Paul Weatherwax.
The plot enthralls in the late hours of a hot New York summer night, a pair of men subdue and kill Jean Dexter, an ex-model, by knocking her out with chloroform and drowning her in her bathtub. When one of the murderers, conscience-stricken, gets drunk, the other kills him, then lifts his body into the air and throws it into the East River. Homicide Detective Lt. Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and his young associate, Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), are assigned to Jean’s case, which the medical examination has determined was murder, not an accident. Muldoon has been a homicide cop for 22 years; Halloran for three months. At the scene, the police interrogate Martha Swenson (Virginia Mullen), Jean’s housekeeper, about Jean’s friends, and she tells them about a “Mr. Henderson.” They also discover a bottle of sleeping pills and her address book. Halloran questions the doctor who prescribed the pills, Lawrence Stoneman (House Jameson), and Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart), another model.
Back at the police station, Muldoon questions Frank Niles (Howard Duff), who lies about everything, claiming only a business relationship with Jean and denying knowing Ruth, to whom he is engaged. The police quickly discover the truth behind many of his lies. Later, Muldoon deduces from the bruises on Jean’s neck that she was killed by at least two men. That evening, Mr. and Mrs. Batory, Jean’s estranged parents, arrive in New York to formally identify the body, and tell the detectives that they have no knowledge of Jean’s acquaintances.
The next morning, the detectives learn that Frank sold a gold cigarette case stolen from Stoneman, and then purchased a one-way airline ticket to Mexico. They also discover that Jean’s ring was stolen from the home of a wealthy Mrs. Hylton (Enid Markey). At Mrs. Hylton’s Park Avenue apartment, the police learn that the ring actually belonged to her daughter, who, to their surprise, turns out to be Ruth. Learning that Ruth’s engagement ring is also stolen property, Muldoon and Halloran take Ruth to Frank’s apartment, where they coincidentally interrupt someone trying to murder him. The killer takes a shot at the cops and escapes onto the nearby elevated train. When questioned about the stolen jewelry, Frank claims that they were all presents from Jean, which reveals his true relationship with her, much to Ruth’s chagrin. Frank is then arrested for the jewel thefts, but the murder case remains open.
Halloran learns that a body recovered from the East River that of Peter Backalis (Walter Burke), a small-time burglar, died within hours of the Dexter murder and connects the two incidents. Muldoon, although skeptical, lets him pursue the lead and assigns two veteran detectives on the squad to help Halloran with the legwork. Through further methodical but tedious investigation, Halloran discovers that Backalis’ accomplice on a jewelry store burglary was Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia), a former wrestler with a penchant for playing the harmonica. While Halloran and his team canvass the Lower East Side of New York using an old publicity photograph of Garzah, Muldoon compels Frank Niles to identify Jean’s mystery boyfriend. Dr. Stoneman is “Henderson”. At Stoneman’s office, Muldoon uses Frank to trap the married physician into confessing that he fell in love with Jean, only to learn that she and Frank were using him in order to rob his society friends. Frank then confesses that Garzah killed Jean and Backalis. Halloran and Muldoon, using different approaches, have come up with the same killer.
In the meantime, Halloran finally locates Garzah and, pretending that Backalis is in the hospital, tries to trick Garzah to accompany him back to the hospital, but Garzah (knowing he killed Backalis) sees through the ruse. The ex-wrestler ‘rabbit punches’ the rookie detective, briefly knocking him unconscious. Garzah attempts to disappear in the crowded city, but as police descend upon the neighborhood, a panicked Garzah draws attention to himself when he shoots and kills a blind man’s guide dog on the pedestrian walk of the Williamsburg Bridge. Garzah attempts to flee over the bridge but as police approach from both directions, he starts climbing one of the towers, and is shot and wounded. High on the tower, Garzah refuses to submit his surrender, in the exchange of the gunfire; he is hit again and falls to his death.
Dassin was no fan of the Hollywood studio system; he had had a miserable experience at MGM under Louis B Mayer, but had served his apprenticeship and learned the craft, being a studio reporter for Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs Smith. Dassin employed silent veteran and Garbo’s favorite cameraman William Daniels to capture the atmosphere of the city, and he duly won the Academy Award for his excellent camerawork of his eye through the beautiful New York in its light, shade and darkness.
This was director Dassin’s last film for Mark Hellinger. His influence of the Italian Neo-realism movement is seen so well in its exuberance and sparkle that derived from that approach. Dassin translated it so well to the streets of New York and fashioned a brilliant and compelling docu-noir, where film star clichés are shunned and a city of unglamorous working people going about their business becomes central to the storytelling. Late Hellinger’s background as a Broadway legend & a columnist on his remarkable voice-over adds a spell on the viewers
Dassin made two movies (Thieves Highway & Night and the City) after this in US as he was blacklisted. He moved to Europe, made French film ‘Riffifi’ remains a cult superlative, signature piece of film making.
What a magnificent film the Naked City turn out to be with so many highs- the most chilling portrayal in the film from the start of the movie, that perhaps drives home Dassin’s original artistic motives of truth, is the first shot of the murder victim. One can clearly see, this victim is a beautiful young woman. Preceding this shot, the viewer is played with images of city nightlife. It makes it far more ominous for us to know that these events, good and bad, are occurring simultaneously. A normal evening out for some people, strangulation and drowning for others…..and lead to a much packed evergreen line “and even this too, could be called routine, in a city of 8 million people.”