Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Naked City


This is a remarkable film for a variety of reasons. It’s the only movie I can recall with spoken opening credits. A narrator identifies himself as producer Mark Hellinger (he died just after seeing the final cut), and then names the writers (Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald) and the stars (Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, and Dorothy Hart). He probably named the director, Jules Dassin, but I must have missed it. This was one of his last movies before he was blacklisted by that traitorous, fascistic, un-American Congressional committee and their fellow travelers in Hollywood. Hellinger then tells us this will be a different kind of movie, not made in the studio but on the real streets and in the real buildings and apartments and offices of New York City. He then goes on to rhapsodize about the city, and from time to time he pops back in to speak to the characters, and comment on the action in a way that is sometimes poetic and sometimes is just what he feels is poetic. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. And I don’t completely believe him. Yes, there is no question that the exteriors were shot on the streets and not on a studio backlot, ditto the interiors of big buildings. But the other interiors give themselves away in subtle ways as being sets. The views out the windows never look quite right, the shots are always from a particular angle, almost certainly because there is no fourth wall.

But I forgive him. The rest of the film is notable mostly for its noir sensibility, inspired, some say, by the famous photographer Weegee, who did a lot of crime scene shots and street scenes. We saw an exhibition of his photos at the Getty Museum not too long ago. This is great stuff. And remember, in 1948 people were not used to much location photography. Studios much preferred to shoot everything … well, in the studio, or on the backlot. Stay in California, in other words. The story is only okay. Barry Fitzgerald as the detective lieutenant is pretty much indistinguishable from any of his other patented Irishman roles (think of Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way, but with a gun and a badge). Howard Duff is pretty good as a smooth talker who can’t keep his lies straight. The chase at the end on the Williamsburg Bridge is very good, though I think a bit of rear projection was used there, too. Maybe, maybe not; if it is, it’s well-done. The style and sensibility of this movie eventually inspired a television series of the same name.