Friday, January 2, 2009

The Naked City (1948)

The plot of The Naked City (1948) is pretty straight-forward noir fare. A young model is killed in New York City and detectives are on the case to find out who committed the crime. As far as plot go, it's pretty unremarkable. However, the film itself was ground-breaking. It's the first movie ever to be filmed on location in New York city. Scenes were shot in the streets, in real apartments, in real buildings and with real people. The "extras" were real bystanders walking the streets. The movie was a sort of documentary/film hybrid. The story is fictional but the locations and all their elements are very real.

The film is narrated by Mark Hellinger, the producer. In the very beginning he introduces the movie, himself, the director Jules Dassin, etc. all by name. How many movies acknowledge within the context of the narration it's existence as a film and those responsible for its creation? What movie ever acknowledges itself as a movie? Occassionally, the acknowledgement comes as a joke buried deep within the center of the plot, however, The Naked City introduces itself in all seriousness as a movie. Reality is juxtaposed with fiction to create a vehicle unseen by moviegoers at that time.

This is the city as it is. Hot summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people, without makeup.

These words are read by Hellinger at the end of the film's introduction and they are important. The film is stripped down of any of the glamour Hollywood was known for. It is literally a film without makeup. None of the actors in the film are particularly glamorous or showy. None are big name stars. They look like average folk working their way through a naked and gritty version of New York City. In fact, the only glamour in the film is killed off in the very beginning. The young model is murdered in her apartment and she is seen only in shadow and darkness. Her jewelry and other baubles are stolen and we never see them. Even the model's friend, who works in the same industry, is seen in a less glamorous light than one would expect. She is more victim than celebrated beauty. In this film, fanciness was removed and the grit was exposed. What we see throughout the rest of the movie are slices of the lives of the working class and shots of the city in all its naked, bare beauty. These elements make this not only an excellent film noir, but a superb movie all-around.

Sad Note: Producer/Narrator Mark Hellinger died of a heart attack in 1947, but survived long enough to have seen a preview of the ground-breaking film.


  1. Thank you for your marvelous review. It gives me an idea of what to expect. It's been on my wish list for a long time.

    I admirer film Noir when filmed on real locations and in cities, because it really gives a grittiness to it, and most of all it shows the loneliness and isolation of city life.

  2. As you say, the story is straight forward but the cinema aspect - the pace, the city, the black and white stark realism - are the strengths of the film. Whenever I watch this film, or something like D.O.A., I often wonder if the directors and producers ever thought their films become sort of time capsules of their moment in time?

    The film spawned a 1958 TV show of the same name and it attempted reality as best can be done with the small box format. It was quite popular and was an Emmy winner.

  3. Love Don Taylor in this movie, with that great chase at the end.

    An interesting sidebar regarding Hellinger's death:

    After the success of "The Killers", Hellinger had a contract for the film rights to four of Ernest Hemingway's(as yet)unwritten short stories: $50,000 for four years, 10% of film profits, and a guarantee of $25,000 a film. After Hellinger died, Hemingway returned the uncashed $25,000 check to the producer's widow. Don't know if Hellinger's death nulled the cotract, but it was a genrous gesture on "Papa's" part.

  4. Great review!
    "The film is stripped down of any of the glamour Hollywood was known for. It is literally a film without makeup." I guess you summed the whole thing up better than most with those two sentences. Superb!

    The spoken presentation of the principal players and such was often used by Orson Welles. But he always did it at the end of the picture.

  5. Hey,

    I taped this movie Thurs night on BBC 2 and on the strength of your review watched it Friday night (London time!) Was this just on telly in NY too? Could there be some kind of bizarre synchronisation going on here?

    I enjoyed the film and found your write-up here to be a very useful intro to the film, thanks!

    Just a note: there are of course many movies that acknowledge themselves as movies in more intellectually engaged ways than this film. Tho not usually in such a blatant manner and usually through images rather than words. Self-reflexivity is present in much film noir, partly due to its journey from the heavily self-reflexive style in much German Expressionist cinema.

    The Naked City mostly has a lot invested in its docu-realism style, not allowing it that much self-reflexivity. This film seems to acknowledge the creators in order to more greatly assert the 'truth' of what it is they are offering.. Rather than the usual 'Brechtian' purposes we tend to expect. The intro reminds me a little of the moral provisos stuck at the start of early 30s gangster movies in that respect too- you know, this gangster stuff is all very bad etc.

    Tho I think this is interesting in its own right as a hangover from WW2 docus etc. And movies too like Confessions of a Nazi Spy. And the use of the phrase 'straight down the line' to denote authenticity, while also suggesting narrative linearity is interesting. I tend to think of this phrase in Double Indemnity (1944), repeated a few times there, as relating to narrative linearity and was tempted to see a direct influence - tho this may be wishful interpretation on my part! The film definitely seems to be influence by Fritz Lang's M, with the schoolchildren's song and the omniscient storytellers' view as above both the cops and the robbers..

    I found some of the acting interesting too and wondered whether one or two of the actors were "real" people, like in the Italian neorealist movies of the same time- some of the more minor cops maybe.. Anyway the acting style every once in a while was trying at a docu-realism in interesting ways I thought- getting impressions that weren't easily assimilable into the narrative.

    I like your new banner by the way!


  6. I saw this movie for the first time a few months ago and like you was very impressed by it. As a police procedural (and I love them, whether novels or movies) it's one of the best of its kind. The sense of authenticity is something striking in American movies of the time. Most filmmakers preferred the controlled conditions of the studio and kept location work to a minimum. It looks as if Jules Dassin, the director, was watching a lot of Italian neo-realist movies like "Open City" when he made this one. I saw his "Brute Force" a little while later and was again really impressed with his direction. The cinematographer, William Daniels, who made literally hundreds of films at MGM including just about all of Garbo's, got an Oscar for "Naked City.' And the movie has my favorite performance by Barry Fitzgerald. No cutesiness or Irish blarnery here, just really good and subtle acting. Isn't that shot of the '49 Ford pulling up to the curb in the fog that TCM uses in one of its intros from this movie? Thanks for bringing attention to this great movie.


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