Completely by chance, I was perusing the March 22, 1948 edition of Life magazine on Google Books — hey, I never claimed to lead an exciting or glamorous existence — and stumbled across an article on The Naked City. I had heard of it before, but never really made an effort to seek it out. But the internet being the wonder it is, I was on YouTube and watching it within minutes.
And the internet being the pain in the ass it is, the fifth part of the movie was missing. I was already invested in things by then, so after a brief delay I managed to find an alternative source. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.
I’m always wary of watching these old movies. They so rarely hold up well. Something about the acting or directing back then just seems so stuffy now. Not sure why that is, but 9 times out of 10 when I watch mid-century entertainment it’s as if every line, every move screams, “LOOK AT US, WE’RE ACTING!” (Then again I did get lucky with The Third Man.)
And yes, some of that rigid style is present in The Naked City. But not enough to sink the film. There’s a few reasons why. First and foremost, producer Mark Hellinger wisely chose to film the entire movie on location in New York City. That means instead of painfully apparent set pieces we get the Real Gotham of 1947. Which means that tucked away among the already formidable cityscape are long-gone scenes like these:
There’s also a scene with a bunch of kids swimming in the East River. Yeah, I know. But they do find a dead body, so that seems about right.
What also saves the film is Barry Fitzgerald as Detective Lt. Dan Muldoon. Yup, an Irish cop. But Fitzgerald is a gas. Just the right mixture of gravitas, acerbic wit, and a been-there-seen-that-body attitude. In a way he is the prototype for characters like Law & Order‘s Lennie Briscoe. You know he cares about his job, but is smart enough to not get too tightly wound up about it.
His fresh-faced partner, Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) is decent but unremarkable. He’s in some painfully wooden scenes but he’s not too much of a distraction.
The story is Crime Drama 101. A pretty blonde dame gets iced in the beginning of the film.
(Well, nearly 10 minutes in. First we get several minutes of setup and narration from Hellinger himself, who I read died after reviewing a final cut of the film. Sad.)
Anyway, the girl gets it and Fitzgerald heads up the investigation with Halloran in tow. Don’t expect to ever see a scene-for-scene remake of this movie. It’s got waaaay too much dialogue. I admire the fact that The Naked City doesn’t attempt to offer up a glamorized vision of police detective work. In between bursts of action are long periods of tedium and dead ends. This is a crime procedural with heavy emphasis on the procedure.
(I also came away with an admiration for detectives in general. How they were able to solve anything back then without the ability to magnify license plates from 200 yards away amazes me.)
So what makes this a good film other than the lead actor and the locations? Well, the cinematography is outstanding in spots. There’s a scene with the detectives and the dead girl’s parents in the morgue that is beautifully shot. There’s a nighttime shootout that actually looks dark and confusing — you know, like in real life.
And then there’s the climactic final chase scene, right out of the Alfred Hitchcock playbook. Because hey, if you’re going to imitate someone, imitate the best. I suppose there’s a reason this is considered one of the prime examples of film noir.
Maybe I’m grading The Naked City on a curve, but I think a B+ is not unmerited. I’ve seen much worse movies from the period, and much worse ones from the modern era. You’ll need to get past sometimes obtrusive Hellinger’s narration, which leaves no doubt that the man was raised in a Jewish Noo Yawk family. I actually grew to enjoy it as the film went on. The same goes for the film itself.
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