Jules Dassin, 1948
Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor, Howard Duff
One night in New York City a young model, Jean, is found dead. Though suicide is initially suspected, it’s soon clear that she was murdered. The experienced Detective Lt. Dan Muldoon and his young partner, Jimmy Halloran, investigate the crime together. While Halloran is doing the legwork on the case, he discovers the suspicious second death of a drunken burglar and some clues about a harmonica-playing boxer. Muldoon allows him to chase down these leads on his own, though eventually the two come to the same conclusion – that Jean’s murder is connected to a man named Frank Niles, possibly Jean’s boyfriend and a consummate liar, and a jewelry theft racket.
The Naked City is yet another of Jules Dassin’s excellent film noir efforts. Though his career was split between the U.S. and Europe, thanks to being blacklisted by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, this film was one of his last on American soil. Influenced by a New York photography book released by artists Weegee, who actually consulted on the film, The Naked City is famous for its docu-noir style. Numerous critics have cited the likely influence of Italian neorealism and Roberto Rossellini, and the film certainly looks like an American take on Rossellini’s depictions of post-war, urban slums in Italy. Though there are several characters in the film, New York City itself is indisputably the main character.
The city is fascinating, but also menacing as shot by award-winning cinematographer William H. Daniels (Greed). It is a playground of hopes, dreams, crime, corruption, and squalor. This is a fascinating look at life in late ‘40s New York. The film takes time to wander through neighborhoods, give a glimpse of the lives of ordinary citizens not connected to the murder mystery at hand, and ignores the ritzier neighborhoods and famous monuments. Somewhat uniquely, narration is provided by the film’s producer, Mark Hellinger, as himself. He points out that Jean’s story is only one of many, implying that murder and crime is just a slice of regular New York life.
Though the film is full of solid performances and a number of colorful figures, the characters are bare sketches. Even the two leads, Barry Fitzgerald’s Lt. Muldoon and Don Taylor’s Halloran, are hardly fleshed out, leaving them less substantial than your average character on Law & Order. But Dassin is able to do a lot with very little. Fitzgerald (The Quiet Man, Bringing Up Baby) is charismatic and almost fatherly as the lead detective, practiced and cynical, yet also sympathetic. Don Taylor (Stalag 17) as the rookie detective is perhaps the most developed, interesting character, and the film essentially follows his travels through the city, while he questions everyone connected with Jean.
Also keep your eyes peeled for some noir and gangster flick regulars in the guise of two of the film’s bad guys, Ted de Corsia (The Lady from Shanghai, The Killing) and the pathetic, yet memorable Howard Duff (Brute Force, While the City Sleeps, also husband of the great Ida Lupino). The Naked City is less concerned with the specific psychology of the killer and more of the puzzle pieces that fit together to provide a picture of murder, crime, and corruption. This last detail – a wide-angle view of crime in the city – is really what elevates this from a solid murder mystery/police procedural into a noteworthy film noir.
Available on DVD from Criterion, The Naked City comes recommended, if only for its dazzling, comprehensive look at ‘40s New York City. Between the witty dialogue, quick pace, and Hitchcockian ending with some truly inspired camera work, there’s not much about this to dislike. The murder mystery plot is definitely formulaic, but Dassin’s skill as a director is transcendent enough that by the second half, you won’t even really care whodunit. Fans of the film noir and crime drama will definitely want to track down The Naked City, and it was successful enough that it spawned a TV series of the same name and joined the ranks of early noir-tinged police procedural shows like Dragnet, Mike Hammer, and The Fugitive.