leading up to the SEP 29 TCM showing of The NAKED CITY, here is a new version of my 3 part series that originally ran in The Dark Pages magazine… read part 1 and part 2 of this series if you haven’t already.
Naked City: the TV Series
Noir is difficult, if not impossible, to transfer to TV in its purest form. Noir films and the stories they’re based on are built on a short dramatic arc, a world unto themselves, flooded by darkness and despair too tightly contained and intense to be drawn out or sustained over many installments. Shows can borrow signature elements of noir like lighting, dialogue, femmes fatales, rotten luck and a dim worldview, and apply those things to a variety of TV genres far beyond straight crime procedurals, as in Buffy The Vampire Slayer or The X-Files, The Sopranos or Dexter. But for series to be successfully long running, they need anchor main characters likable and stable enough for viewers to welcome into their homes each week, and who are not the so much the object (target, sometimes) of the plot themselves as they are observers who deal with the stories, whether those consist of doomed characters, stand-alone noir tales, or cases flowing through squad rooms, jails and courtrooms. The noirs best suited to episodical TV are those featuring detectives of any kind, and The Naked City, a police procedural based upon a collection of photos, had both the anchor characters and the promise of potentially endless stories (the lives of New York’s 8 million!) built in. In the years after The Naked City film was released in 1948 — the same year networks introduced prime time TV schedules – there was little sign that anyone would mine the movie for its potential as a weekly series. It took a whole decade, until early 1958, for the industry to start buzzing about a TV series based on the film. TV producer Herbert B. Leonard, who had experience adapting movies to TV with The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, presumably realized The Naked City would be a grittier Eastern cousin of Dragnet, which had debuted on radio in 1949 and moved to TV in 1952 with phenomenal success. Leonard’s The Naked City was picked up for ABC’s fall season, set to air Tuesdays at 9:30 pm, and brought to you by the hardboiled (well, in one sense anyway) sponsor Quaker Oats.
The first version of the show faithfully recreated the film’s characters, with 29 year old James Franciscus playing detective Bill Halloran, and the accomplished (with over 50 films under his belt to that point) John McIntire as Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Leonard had originally wanted Barry Fitzgerald to reprise his film role as Muldoon, but Fitzgerald had recently suffered a stroke and could not participate). Guests in the first season included Nehemiah Persoff, Jack Klugman and Diane Ladd. The stories ranged from murder, muggings, gangs, hit men and hostage takers, to Halloran’s domestic problems (his wife Janet was played by Suzanne Storrs) and his struggles over killing someone in the line of duty. Just as with the film, hundreds of onlookers watched and participated in the show’s shoots in New York City. Reviewers raved about the series’ excellent use of locations, from the opening episode’s chase scene, to a robbery on the Staten Island ferry, a search through the sewers beneath Manhattan, and a yacht crashing in the harbor. It was all described as a great mixture of “jazz, blood and bullets” by one TV writer. The jazz part of the equation came from George W. Duning, the composer whose theme music “this is the Naked City” opened the show each week. Other than the theme, though, the show mainly used previously recorded library music as its score.
Halfway through the first season, with The Naked City doing well in the ratings, Leonard was planning a TV series based on the noir Brute Force, but major changes were on the horizon for his current show. Californian McIntire was homesick, and reportedly weary of the grueling location shooting. He left the show to return west, prompting the writers to kill off his character during a high speed chase in the March 1959 episode “the Bumper” (his car crashed into a gasoline tanker and exploded). Offing a series lead in such dramatic fashion was a new tactic in the young medium of TV, and letters of protest poured into the network. Horace McMahon, rumpled, brusque, and more realistically NYPD for many, was introduced as the “new” veteran cop, Lieutenant Mike Parker. That spring, as the first season drew to a close, ABC announced that The Naked City would not return the following fall, and would instead be replaced by something aspiring to be equally noirish, Phillip Marlowe, starring Phil Carey (my post on Carey’s life and career).
After 39 episodes The Naked City seemed finished, but the concept had, for more than a decade repeatedly demonstrated that it wouldn’t die. With rumors swirling that the show would be picked up by NBC, Leonard used the earnings from The Naked City to start work on his next project, another ambitious roving-location series called Route 66. In March 1960, after a year off the air, announcements about the new fall schedules included, along with a prehistoric cartoon the “Flagstones” (title later changed to something more memorable) a reformatted, new and improved version of Naked City. The title was shortened (no more “The”), but in every other way the show was greatly expanded. Now an hour long, Naked City was to return to ABC, who cleared boxing out of the 10 pm Wednesday slot to make room.
The first change viewers noticed was the cast. Horace McMahon was back as Lt. Parker, as was Harry Bellaver as Sergeant Frank Arcaro (Bellaver’s noir film pedigree included Side Street and No Way Out), but James Franciscus was gone, and the new young detective now named Adam Flint was played by Paul Burke, an actor who had worked his way up through 200 TV roles and a handful of short-lived series before landing the role that would make him a TV star. Here’s some arcane TV trivia for you: Burke happens to be the only actor to twice take over the lead role in a TV series based on a movie based on a book (the other time he pulled this feat was on 12 O’Clock High, when he took over for Robert Lansing in 1964, in a series based on the 1949 movie). Flint’s actress girlfriend Libby was played by Nancy Malone. The interaction between Burke and Malone had a youthful, playful, combative and thoroughly modern spin, as both had demanding and competing big-city careers and aspirations. Burke played the aptly-named Flint as quiet, sharp and conscientious, but also much more tightly coiled and intense than Don Taylor’s role in the original movie. The sensitive and idealistic Flint would sooner spout at society’s injustices or the law’s harshness than browbeat heartless criminals. McMahon was the wise but crusty boss, exasperated, impatient, proud, by turns barking at the detectives, scolding them for being led by their bleeding hearts, or carefully guiding them through their own deductions (a la Barry Fitzgerald’s Muldoon in the film). Bellaver’s character covered the middle ground between Burke and McMahon, playing the reliable, sometimes comically befuddled but always lovable and well-intentioned cop.
Naked City also had all-new music; a different theme composed by Billy May, who went all the way and composed full orchestral scores for each episode. May also did signature theme music for each recurring character, and still more unique music to fit each week’s story, which he usually introduced during the pre-credit opening teaser. It added an emotional, sweeping cinematic quality to the show, not to mention adding considerably to the show’s budget. Naked City was among TV’s most expensive series, with uncompromising standards, lavish production values, action packed set pieces, on-location shooting, and high profile guest stars.
The show was an acting showcase whether featuring young, new and unknown faces destined for fame, or A-list movie and stage stars. Among the who’s who of guests: Silvia Sidney, Gene Hackman, Steve Cochran, Eli Wallach, Sam Jaffe, Kim Hunter, Jon Voight, Walter Matthau, Robert Duvall, Christopher Walken, Aldo Ray. Due to its expanded format, convenient location (for stage actors), and creative approach, Naked City served up juicy, deep and detailed character studies of the people involved in crime, whether they were victims, perpetrators, accomplices or regular folk caught just at the right moment and deterred from wrongdoing. The people were portrayed as real, ordinary, crushed by the big city and yearning to be understood. Where the film recreated Weegee’s photos mainly for style and atmosphere, the TV series had both time and room to focus and meditate on and try to understand the week’s “snapshot”, analyze and investigate causes and effects, engage in ponderous and sometime melodramatic dissection of motives, and provide social commentary.
Such ambitious themes worked because the series was blessed with a brilliant creative team. The greatest number of episodes was directed by Stuart Rosenberg (The Amityville Horror, Cool Hand Luke), and John Brahm (The Locket, Hangover Square). Other directors included Arthur Hiller, William Beaudine and Eliot Silberstein (Cat Ballou). There were 7 writers in first season, and a stable of quality scribes throughout the show’s run, all of whom gave TV history some memorably arty-funky Twilight Zone-y and oh so deeply meaningful titles like “Ooftus Goofus”, “The Man Who Kills the Ants Is Coming”, and “The Multiplicity of Herbert Kronish”. It proved to be a launching ground for many star writers, as most went on to further TV work (Howard Rodman, Gilbert Ralston), TV legend (Gene Roddenberry), or film, like Frank Pierson, who went on to write or co-write Cat Ballou, Cool Hand Luke, Dog Day Afternoon. Sterling Silliphant, who wrote the bulk of the episodes and served as story consultant, had come from Alfred Hitchcock Presents and went on to write most of Route 66 for Herbert Leonard. “Prime of Life” was an episode which exemplified the show’s ethos, aims, and effect. Silliphant’s script was about Burke reluctantly, and with tortured introspection, witnessing the execution of a criminal he helped arrest, a meditation on the nature of evil and the death penalty, all set to May’s stark, haunting music, that aired in the show’s final season in 1963.
Despite consistently high ratings, after 99 episodes of Naked City (counting both versions, 138 episodes in all), the series was cancelled by ABC. The show earned Emmy nominations for every season it aired, and many of its actors were similarly recognized. Paul Burke, twice Emmy nominated, went on to the aforementioned war series 12 O’Clock High, and had many guest and recurring roles on shows including Dynasty and the soap Santa Barbara. Nancy Malone, with one Emmy nomination for playing Libby, left the show in 1962, citing lack of story or variety for her character. She eventually branched into directing, earning further Emmy nominations for helming episodes of Sisters and the Trials of Rosie O’Neill, and won an Emmy for producing a Bob Hope special in 1993. Horace McMahon was Emmy-nominated as supporting actor for playing Parker, and made a dozen more TV guest appearances before he died in 1971. No awards for Herbert Leonard, but he deserves much credit, and the eternal gratitude of procedural show fans and all the TV producers that came in his wake, for Herbert not only pioneered TV location shooting but also did wonders with the idea of the movie spinoff series.
Above all, give loads of “credit to Weegee the famous”, whose autobiography came out in 1961, nicely timed with the show’s success; he died in 1968. His entrepreneurial picture-snapping on the streets of New York sure had far-reaching effects. The subjects he captured, the dark and graphic style he used, the phrase he coined, the concept he inspired, all amounted to an idea so fertile it spawned numerous adaptations, only seeming to improve and yield more material as it passed through many brilliant creative hands, and still exercises huge influence on what we watch today. There are now a lot more than 8 million stories in the Naked City, and this has been one of them.
Image Entertainment’s DVD releases of Naked City
Naked City: the Television Series, by James Rosin, which contains interviews with many of the show’s stars, directors, and executives.