Director: Jules Dassin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Long before I knew there was a film called The Naked City I was a committed fan of a TV series that ran from 1958 through 1963 called Naked City. An important element of that show was its narrator, who took viewers through the procedures of a compelling crime case each week and spoke the words “There are 8 millions stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”
The entire template for that popular series, which TV tried to revive in the early 1990s without success, was this unusual movie by one of the best crime-film directors around, Jules Dassin. Influenced by the Italian Neorealist style, the film’s producer, a former newspaperman named Mark Hellinger, was convinced that a movie filmed entirely on location in New York City would create a thrill in audiences unlike any they had yet experienced. And as the film’s voiceover narrator, he comes right out and says so.
In its opening shot, which would be reproduced for the TV series, an airplane flies over Manhattan, from the Battery, over Central Park, along the East River, and past other locations. Cameras at ground level show people going about their daily activities as Hellinger describes their doings—some with no knowledge that they are being filmed; some, characters in the screenplay; and then the money shot. A blonde named Jean Dexter is being murdered in her apartment—strangled unconscious and then drown in her bathtub. In this way, the film sets the stage for a police procedural that manages to capture both the methodical drudgery of investigative police work and the exotic thrills Hollywood is good at delivering to eager fans.
The investigation launches after Martha Swenson (Virginia Mullen), the victim’s maid, lets herself into Miss Dexter’s apartment, picks up a newspaper lying on the floor, rights some toppled knick-knacks, and tries to rouse her employer from sleep. She enters the bedroom, finds the bed rumpled but empty, then notices water on the floor. Martha peers into the bathroom, and then we get the stock close-up of her whipping her head around, eyes wide with horror, mouth twisted in a scream. Soon the police are on the scene questioning her.
In classic fashion, the veteran cop is mated with the new member of the detective squad. I absolutely love Barry Fitzgerald as Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon, the man who’s seen it all but hasn’t quite gotten used to it. The role shows that Fitzgerald, practically bleached of his actory colors by his sentimental rendering of Father Fitzgibbon in the Bing Crosby cornfest Going My Way, knew what he was doing. Even the few Irish ditties he sings while he’s washing up at home seem part of his character, not a page out of the Irish caricature manual. His young partner, Detective Jim Halloran (Don Taylor), is smart, good-looking, and completely comfortable wearing out his shoe leather walking from lead to lead throughout Manhattan. A short scene of character-building shows him coming home to his wife (Anne Sargent), who has donned a sexy summer outfit to coax him to give their son a whipping for crossing a busy street alone. It’s a good sparring match, entertaining, and in keeping with the day-in-the-life style of the film.
As the homicide squad works the case, they turn up Dr. Stoneman, (House Jameson), a doctor who wrote a prescription for the dead woman; Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart), a friend with whom she modeled at a dress shop; and Frank Niles (Howard Duff), a man the maid said came by frequently to visit Miss Dexter. They also are searching for a Mr. Henderson, described as a tall, thin, older man, possibly from Baltimore, who called on Miss Dexter and apparently gave her expensive jewelry, according to the maid, who saw a drawer full of jewels in the murdered woman’s dresser. All of the interviewed people say they’d do anything to help capture Dexter’s killer.
Howard Duff plays the spoiled rich kid gone bad with devious precision. He is an incredibly convincing liar. Even after Muldoon quickly and accidentally learns that he has lied during his very first interview—Niles says he barely knows Morrison, then she walks into the interview room and identifies him as her fiancé—he, and we, continue to get ensnared in his web of intrigue. Eventually, it all comes down to a neat conspiracy and a man who plays the harmonica, capped by one of the most exciting chase sequences in film history—one that may have inspired Jimmy Cagney’s run up a gas tower in White Heat just a year later. All along the way, Hellinger interjects comments about what someone might be thinking, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, as though he were sitting in our heads and narrating our thoughts.
Some people have called this film a noir, but the femme fatale is the murdered woman, and to me, that’s not noir. Additionally, there is no web of fate drawing unsuspecting pigeons into its trap. Instead, we have several career criminals drawing an amateur, but willing, man (Duff) into their ring and entrapping another in a blackmail scheme. Therefore, what we have is a straight-up detective story handled expertly by Dassin, a director of cracking noirs who made it big in Europe under his own name after he was blacklisted; his masterful Rififi (Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes, 1955), a French noir that plays more like a crime caper, captures some of the attention to detail of actually doing a job found in The Naked City, but from the criminal’s point of view.
Hellinger’s narrative grounds this film solidly in the work-a-day world, capturing the motives and movements of its members. But it is the location shooting that really gives this film its vitality—the vitality of New York itself. The kids playing in the water released from fire hydrants are real. When the murderer jumps over fences and darts down alleys with Halloran in pursuit, they’re real fences and alleys. Whether we wish to believe in the robbery ring, which seems to come right out of central casting, we have to admit that this film makes it seem that crimes like these happen in neighborhoods like this.
As much for its time-capsule depiction of New York as for its other fine attributes, The Naked City has received a fine Criterion Collection release. Enjoy this story in 8 million from the Naked City and all the extras. l