by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Jules Dassin
Cast: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 85%
PLOT: In almost documentary-like fashion, New York City cops investigate the brutal murder of a young woman.
It’s that narration.
If The Naked City hadn’t included that cockamamie narration, I might have given it a “9” instead of a “7.” Here is a police procedural ahead of its time, a pre-television-era herald of popular entertainments from Dragnet to Law and Order to CSI. The story is absorbing and engaging from beginning to end, even if some of the acting is not especially Oscar-worthy. There are enough twists and turns in the search for a cold-blooded killer – or killers – to keep your attention all the way through. And over it all, intruding where it’s not wanted, is a Disney-esque narration from the film’s producer, Mark Hellinger, who also produced a superior prison film a year earlier, Brute Force (1947), also directed by Jules Dassin.
Imagine a scene where foot-weary detectives are pounding the streets, making inquiries at jewelry stores, hairdressers, pawnshops, looking for leads. As we watch the scene progress, we hear the narrator: “Are your feet tired, detective? Not to worry, only 400 more jewelry shops to go.”
Or another scene where a detective looks wearily through a window at the city laid out below, pondering where to go for the next clue. Cue the narrator: “There’s your city, Halloran. Take a good look. Jean Dexter is dead, and the answer must be somewhere down there…”
I hated the narration in this movie. It reduced what I was watching to the level of one of those Disney animated shorts where Goofy is playing some kind of sport and the narrator describes the action while Goofy screws it up spectacularly. Another example, as morning comes to the city: “The city is quiet now, but soon it will be pounding with activity. This time yesterday, Jean Dexter was just another pretty girl, but now she’s the marmalade on 10,000 pieces of toast.” Give me a break. I fully understand how future TV shows made use of this kind of narration, but not to this degree. It made a crime story sound like an industrial video.
So let us stipulate that I hated the narration. The rest of this review will discuss the film as if the narration didn’t exist. It’s best for you, it’s best for me…it’s best for us.
The Naked City opens with the murder of a young woman, Jean Dexter. The rest of the movie details the police investigation and search for her killer. In broad strokes, that’s pretty much it. In its own way, it reminded me a little bit of All the President’s Men (1976) in that we’re focused exclusively on the process of investigation with very little cutting away to other participants. The lead figures are a very Oyrish Lieutenant Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and the dependable Halloran (Don Taylor). The chief suspect is Frank Niles (an impossibly young Howard Duff, whom you may recall as Ted Kramer’s attorney in Kramer vs. Kramer ). Niles raises so many red flags that I started to think he was an obvious red herring. Under questioning, he lies and lies and lies again, even “forgetting” to tell the police he’s engaged to the dead woman’s best friend. Can this guy be for real? We have seen so many criminals in so many TV shows and movies who are so much better at lying to the police…but he’s so bad at it that he must be innocent by default, right?
The investigation continues. Clues and leads are chased down. Another murder occurs. False confessions are heard and dismissed. The dead girl’s parents come down to the mortuary to identify the body. (That particular scene was notable for being filmed at an actual New York City mortuary, a first for its time. In fact, the vast majority of The Naked City was filmed on location in the Big Apple, one of the first major Hollywood productions to do so. It’s hard to conceive of now, but this caused a minor sensation upon the movie’s release.)
While the mystery of the murder is the real meat of the story, I got the impression that the goal of the film was to bring these mundane police procedures to the masses, to show audiences that, while you work and eat and play and raise your families and go to baseball games, the good guys are on the case whenever something goes wrong. And this is what they do for just one murder case. In a city like New York, who knows how many murder cases are being worked on at once? As the closing narration famously says, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” (Okay, that’s the one bright spot in the narration, let us never speak of it again.)
I can even draw a direct line between The Naked City and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). In The Naked City, Halloran uncovers a possible connection between the second murder victim and the prime suspect in the first murder. (It’s complicated.) He gets permission from Muldoon to chase it down, despite how unpromising it is. As he’s following his nose, Muldoon chases down a lead of his own, getting closer to the true mastermind behind this case. In this way, there is a direct parallel in The Silence of the Lambs where Crawford takes a task force to a suspect’s house while Clarice follows a nearly invisible trail to Jame Gumb’s doorstep.
Everything comes to a head with a foot chase that leads to the Williamsburg Bridge, scenes that must have been a little mind-blowing for 1948 audiences as the camera seemingly defies gravity, climbing higher and higher into the scaffolding with the fleeing suspect. (It should also be noted that the film perhaps romanticizes inner city life to a degree…as the suspect flees across the bridge, he breaks up a group of children skipping rope on the footpath. Not the kind of thing I’d expect to see today, for sure.)
The Naked City is about as good as crime dramas in the ‘40s could get without resorting to the darkness and shadows of film noir. This is, after all, a film about the good guys, not the bad. Watching cops interrogate witnesses and compare notes about stolen jewelry isn’t quite as “sexy” as watching Bogie draw down on some hoodlums, but hey, that’s the kind of thing that really happens in the big bad city.