There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.
It’s really giving nothing away saying that these are the closing lines of Jules Dassin‘s 1948 film The Naked City. As a matter of fact, they will seem familiar to anyone who has had the chance to enjoy the follow-up television series, as they were actually adapted as the opening lines to that series.
The Naked City is actually a unique film in quite a few ways, and they are ways that all work to the movie’s advantage. First off, it was actually shot in the streets of New York. These location shots add a verisimilitude to the movie that simply could not be attained in any other way. There really is no other city like New York, no matter what the year, and there is no way that any backlot reproduction can really get across the feeling – the atmosphere – that makes the city what it is. Whether it’s the hustle and bustle of the city’s downtown streets, the scenes of children playing in the water from a fire hydrant, the storefronts and the shabby tenements, or the scenes that take place in iconic locations such as the Williamsburg Bridge, this really does become a story of the city and not just one that happens to be set there.
Secondly, the film is shot in a pseudo-documentary style that takes full advantage of these New York locations. I suppose at this point I should mention that the movie is a police procedural in which a model by the name of Jean Dexter has been killed. During the film we follow the investigating detectives as they move from place to place, slowly gathering and sifting through all of the clues and evidence and building the case against their suspect. As we see this we watch them quite often from a distance, talking to people on the street, to store owners and shop keepers, to all varieties of people in numerous locations, showing them pictures and asking them questions as they follow up on every possible lead.
So if a number of these shots are from a distance and some of them are even silent, how do we, as an audience follow what is being presented to us on the screen? Well, that brings us to the third item that makes the film unique: the entire enterprise is narrated by the off-screen voice of the film’s producer, Mark Hellinger, who actually died of a heart attack on December 21, 1947, just after he had reviewed the final cut of the film in his home. The voice-over narration is the kind of thing that I would usually find rather annoying, but within the context of this particular film it works to help create a more cohesive whole. One part of the reason for that, i think, is that there are times when it is used to really reinforce the sense of tedium that comes with this type of investigation. That’s not at all to imply that the film is boring. It never gets to the point where the movie itself drags or feels overly long, simply that the repetition of the questioning is emphasized in a way that helps to show that the drama, when it does come, feels earned.
At the same time, I should also note that the narration also never takes away from the performances in the movie, especially that of Barry Fitzgerald, who stars as Det. Lt. Dan Muldoon, the officer who is put in charge of the investigation. Fitzgerald is always an interesting presence in any movie, and he definitely shines here. Nor is he the only one. The film really is an ensemble piece, and Fitzgerald is given great support from a cast that includes Howard Duff as Frank Niles, Dorothy Hart as Ruth Morrison, Don Taylor as Detective Jimmy Halloran, Frank Conroy as Captain Donahue, Ted de Corsia as Willie Garza, House Jameson as Dr. Lawrence Stoneman, and Anne Sargent as Mrs. Halloran. While these actors unfortunately are not household names today, they are all strong in their respective roles and bring just the right tone to the proceedings.
In the end, however, the real star of the movie is, as is noted in the title, the city itself, and the stories it has to tell. And this one, out of the eight million possibilities, is definitely a good one. I say check it out!
Here’s the opening:
- Naked City (patrickmccoy.typepad.com)
- The Netflix Queue: The Naked City (1948) (prettycleverfilms.com)
- “Eight Million Stories”: Humans of New York Project (enotes.com)