The Naked City

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USA, 1948

Director: Jules Dassin

Production: Hellinger Productions for United-International Pictures; black and white, 35mm; running time: 96 minutes. Released 4 March 1948. Filmed in Stillman's Gym, the Roxy Theater, the Whitehall Building, the City Morgue, Roosevelt Hospital, the Universal Building, and Williamsburg Bridge in New York City.

Producers: Mark Hellinger with Jules Buck; screenplay: Malvin Wald and Albert Maltz, from an unpublished story by Malvin Wald; photography: William Daniels; editor: Paul Weatherwax; sound: Leslie I. Carey and Vernon W. Kramer; art director: John F. DeCuir; set decorators: Russell Gausman and Oliver Emert; music: Miklos Rozsa and Frank Skinner; music supervisor: Milton Schwarzwald; costume designer: Grace Houston.

Cast: Barry Fitzgerald (Lt. Dan Muldoon); Howard Duff (Frank Niles); Dorothy Hart (Ruth Morrison); Don Taylor (Jimmy Halloran); Ted De Corsia (Garzah); House Jameson (Dr. Stoneman); Anne Sargent (Mrs. Halloran); Adelaide Klein (Mrs. Batory); Grover Burgess (Mr. Batory); Tom Pedi (Detective Perelli); Enid Markey (Mrs. Hylton); Frank Conroy (Captain Donahue).



Wald, Malvin, and Albert Maltz, The Naked City, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, Carbondale, Illinois, 1979.


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* * *

The Naked City is New York, a metropolis of playgrounds and police precincts, fire escapes and brownstones and neon lights, rush-hour subways packed like sardine cans and fire hydrants sprinkling the streets on a sweltering summer day. It is most definitely not a city constructed on a Hollywood back lot, not a set designer's stylized or otherwise exaggerated vision of Manhattan canyons. To paraphrase Mark Hellinger, the film's producer and narrator, the actors play their roles in the actual apartments, skyscrapers and city streets—107 total locations in all.

During and after World War II, several Hollywood thrillers were shot in a documentary-like manner, away from the studio in actual urban locales: The House on 92nd Street (the trendsetter, filmed in New York and released three years before The Naked City), Panic in the Streets and Walk East on Beacon (which were shot in, respectively, New Orleans and Boston). Jules Dassin's The Naked City may not be the first of its type, but its almost revolutionary union of actors and real people, on real streets, has inspired scores of films ever since. The camera crew worked inside a van equipped with a one-way mirror, enabling them to film the city while remaining invisible to passersby. New York, and New Yorkers, become the leading performers, the film's major attraction.

The Naked City is a series of powerful scenes, first depicting the murder of a pretty, man-hungry, larcenous young model, and then detailing the efforts of the cops to sniff out her killers. Of course, they unravel the case, which culminates in a thrilling chase sequence across the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan's Lower East Side to Brooklyn. The homicide detectives are meticulous, but their labors are decidedly tedious and unglamorous. They are not heroically superhuman Clint Eastwoods, and they do not exchange sexy banter with voluptuous heroines whom they bed before the final reel. The major role is played by Barry Fitzgerald; he could be only May Robson's idea of a sex symbol, but his character is a sharp, 30-odd year veteran at the New York Police Department. His associate, young eager-to-please Don Taylor, might be more attractive, but he lives in an undistinguished working class neighborhood and kisses his wife goodbye each morning. Fitzgerald tells a co-worker that he hasn't had a busy day since yesterday; he and his fellow flatfoots forever "ask a question, get an answer, ask another." The Naked City does not contain street language or bloody corpses; it is no Sharky's Machine or True Confessions or Prince of the City. But it is as realistic as a major studio film could be in 1948.

The leading actors are familiar faces, but not stars. Except for, perhaps, Barry Fitzgerald, their names were unfamiliar to audiences. The Naked City is peopled not so much by performers as faces, everyday faces. The murder victim's parents appear in several key scenes, and the actors portraying them give heartwrenching performances. But, most importantly, they look like an anonymous couple from the New Jersey boondocks who have lost their only child to the glitter of the big city.

From Brute Force to Rififi to Never on Sunday, director Jules Dassin's career has been disconnected: The Naked City is more the cousin of The House on 92nd Street than anything else in Dassin's filmography (with the possible exception of Night and the City, shot in London). All have their roots more in Italian neorealism—or even the ashcan paintings of Robert Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan, George Luks and William Glackens—than in anything from Hollywood.

—Rob Edelman