Noirvember II #2 – The Naked City (1948)

pdccueqhThe Naked City (1948)
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Albert Maltz (screenplay), Malvin Hald (story, screenplay)
Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor

Note: We previously covered director Jules Dassin in last year’s Noirvember feature of Night and the City.  Check it out here.

The hot, bustling streets of New York City are the real star of Jules Dassin’s seminal film noir The Naked City.  Filmed entirely on location in the big city, Dassin’s film is quite unique and very much ahead of its time by not being confined to a sound stage like many of its contemporaries.  Impressively, this film came before Dassin’s biggest successes – Night and the City and Rififi – and serves as one of the early indicators of Dassin’s skills behind the camera. Director of photography William H. Daniels was honored with an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his brilliant photography of New York City. Daniels managed to capture the feel of a true film noir despite filming a majority of the scenes in broad daylight, creating a relentlessly hot, muggy atmosphere in the process.  When we’re not under the bright sun, Daniels captures breathtaking images of New York City horizons at sunset, giving us a wide variety of photography.  Daniels’ skilled eye, combined with Dassin’s prowess behind the camera, and frequent narration from Mark Hellinger gives The Naked City an almost documentary-like feel.

Starring veteran actor Barry Fitzgerald and the young Don Taylor, The Naked City is procedural in every sense of the word.  Fitzgerald plays Lieutenant Dan Muldoon, who we follow as he investigates the apparent murder of a young woman named Jean Dexter.  Dexter is thought to have been drowned in her bathroom, and drugged using prescription sleeping pills.  Rookie detective Jimmy Halloran (Taylor) accompanies Lt. Muldoon through the proceedings. The two question a wide range of suspects and connections, including Dr. Stoneman (House Jameson), who prescribed the pills, Frank Niles (Howard Duff), who carried out an affair with Dexter, and a veteran professional wrestler turned burglar named Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia).  Muldoon and Halloran come to the conclusion that multiple suspects are responsible, and pursue any lead they can find.  This leads to the veteran Muldoon handling much of the questioning, and Halloran on the New York City streets.  What ensues is a thrilling, suspenseful, and unpredictable turn of events that will see Jean Dexter’s killer apprehended by the authorities – but at what cost?  Find out in Jules Dassin’s excellent The Naked City!

It’s difficult not to compare The Naked City to Night and the City.  They were released within two years of each other, directed by Jules Dassin, prominently feature a moody big city atmosphere, and oddly enough feature professional wrestlers in their story.  If there’s one thing that sets The Naked City apart from Dassin’s later noir masterpiece, it’s that the former has much more personality to it.  The Naked City features elements of humor throughout, often delivered through Mark Hellinger’s excellent narration.  Hellinger’s narrator helps to personify the city of New York, further pushing the sprawling metropolis as a lead character in The Naked City.  He gives voices to the people of New York, who are going about their daily routines without knowing anything about the events taking place in the film.  The personality is furthered even more through William H. Daniel’s incredible photography, the suspenseful and enthralling crime story as told by screenwriters Albert Maltz and Malvin Hald, and some terrific early direction from Jules Dassin.  The combination of these elements creates a truly memorable and unique film noir experience, which I did not expect going into The Naked City.  It’s dark, it’s funny, and it’s beautiful – It’s everything film noir should aspire to be.
NAKED CITY, THE
What I Liked:

  • William H. Daniel’s cinematography really adds a lot to the film.  His photography brings New York City to life.
  • Barry Fitzgerald’s performance as Lt. Muldoon is a perfect anchor, bringing a lot of veteran instincts to a film featuring a great deal of newcomers and first time actors.
  • The score by Miklos Rozsa and Frank Skinner adds suspense and levity to the film, especially in its last act.
  • The final scene on the Williamsburg Bridge is terrific and feels well-earned and satisfying.
  • Mark Hellinger’s narration is humorous and insightful, it really brings the film together.  Hellinger also served as producer on the film, but died before its release.
  • The procedural elements never get too bogged down in the nitty gritty details, which definitely helps the pacing of the film.

What I Didn’t:

  • At times the reasons behind the murder of Jean Dexter felt contrived, but that pretty much sums up the motives of criminals in film noir.
  • The character of Willie Garzah should feel like more of a threat.  He does for a brief moment, only for it to crumble almost immediately.  

Having now seen three of director Jules Dassin’s most famous films, I can absolutely appreciate what he did for the genres of film noir and crime, but also for movies as a whole.  Dassin understands suspense and the importance of a strong build-up like few others – any comparisons to the works of Alfred Hitchcock seem well warranted.  The Naked City is a stylish, fast-paced crime procedural that will please viewers of any background.  It features stunning on-location cinematography, a fun lead performance by Barry Fitzgerald, sharp writing, editing, and pacing.  It truly is everything a film noir should be.  It probably won’t change your life in any meaningful way, but I think it’s safe to call it a classic of the genre.  Jules Dassin’s The Naked City is highly recommended.

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