Jules Dassin’s The Naked City is an often stiff police procedural film noir. It’s based on a story by Malvin Wald, with Wald and Albert Maltz responsible for the screenplay. The real kicker for this 1948 outing is that it features the on-location cinematography of William H. Daniels, who snagged an Academy Award for his work.
Realism is the name of the game for The Naked City and Dassin seems to move away from the moral fable that was 1947’s Brute Force. His striking penchant for tackling the inequality of the noir landscape takes a backseat to producer Mark Hellinger, whose vision for a semi-documentary New York City is the driving force.
Hellinger even provides narration, setting up the Big Apple on a hot summer night. Things are happening, even at one in the morning. There is, for instance, a murder. A blonde is killed by two men. Later, the police open their investigation. Homicide detective Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) checks things out with young Halloran (Don Taylor) and the case starts to take shape.
The police interrogate the right people and collect the right clues. The blonde was a model, it turns out. A friend and fellow model (Dorothy Hart) becomes a figure of interest, as does a chap named Frank Niles (Howard Duff). People lie. There’s stolen jewelry. The cops fish the corpse of a burglar out of the drink and try to narrow their list of suspects.
The Naked City has a sturdy, stilted style. Hellinger’s narration sometimes paints the picture like newsreel footage. He speaks to certain characters, reads some dialogue, tracks the events in New York like a fascinated observer. There are stories all over the city, eight million of them, and this is just one of them.
In that sense, the city is the story. Dassin sometimes settles on conversations that have little to do with the plot, like when two women chat in front of the dress shop where the victim worked. Sometimes Daniels’ lens shows people working and the audience hears an internal monologue, like when a woman wonders about the philosophy behind mopping endless floors.
These bits of humanity add colour and texture. They also give Dassin something to latch on to, especially when the procedural business of the main storyline gets dry. And it does get dry often. There’s nothing particularly interesting about the murder or the suspects or the method. The kids in the street are more interesting. The lifeblood of the city fascinates.
But it’s hard to shake The Naked City from its routine. While the point is certainly to convey just one of many stories from the titular warren, it’s hard not to wish for this movie to have more of a pulse. The performances are taut because they’re confined to realism and the events don’t have much fire, even if the city teeming behind everything continues to run.
This sort of ponderous routine is the point and luckily the look of The Naked City has a lot to offer. Daniels sweeps the audience up in the endlessness of New York City and Paul Weatherwax’s Oscar-winning editing ensures that the images are seldom wasted. And there is the climax, an intense chase punched up by staggering violence, that breathes something into the dusty lungs.
The Naked City is a good movie, even when it’s slow. There’s a lot to admire about the craft and the gimmick, with Hellinger’s documentary suggestiveness running as a keen forerunner to the sharp, hard-nosed procedurals so common on television. It’s harder to pin down Dassin’s beating heart, but there’s still a lot of room in the teeming city for one more story.