Naked City part 1: the book

leading up to the SEP  29 TCM showing of the classic noir THE NAKED CITY, here’s a new version of my 3 part series that originally ran in The Dark Pages magazine

Naked City: The book.

The dark, gritty semi-documentary police procedurals of the past few decades, from neo-noirs like Se7en to the ever-present Law & Orders and CSIs, may seem an entirely modern creation, but are only the latest in a long line of works that owe their existence to a look and form established in 1940’s noir. Graphic scenes-of-the-crime, followed by routine investigations, with a big city as main character; it’s a form whose origins in fact reach back further than noir itself. If you explore the numerous and far-flung range of influences that fed into and formed the genre — German expressionism, horror and gangster movies, the least artistic and most practical of choices forced by low budgets -– is to discover just how much the procedural, and the look of noir in general, owes to a man with one name and a good eye for detail and the essence of a scene.

He was an immigrant to New York, and grew up seeing the city as usually only an outsider can. He had a darkroom in the trunk of his car and went by a strange nickname that lent him as much mystery as the night he set out to illumine and capture with the flash of his camera. He never wrote a crime novel or a screenplay, never acted in, produced or directed a film, yet as definitely as any Hollywood luminary could have done, he laid the groundwork for the realist style that marked many noirs, and he did all this by recording and exposing the naked city.

Usher Fellig was born in 1899, in Lemberg, Austria, a part of the country that’s now in Ukraine. When Usher was 7, his father Bernard moved to the United States; four years later, wife Rachel, 11-yr old Usher and 3 siblings followed and the family settled in New York City, where Usher’s name was Anglicized to Arthur. At 14, Arthur quit school to work, and spent a few years at his first job–a darkroom technician and photographer’s assistant. Eventually, the enterprising young man started his own business. He bought a pony so he could attract neighborhood children and families for street portraits–until the cost of maintaining the pony far exceeded any revenue it generated. Arthur had to put off his entrepreneurial dreams and work at a number of odd jobs; at one point he was even a hole puncher at the Life Savers candy factory. But by 19, was again working at a photo studio and for the next few years was a photographer for the New York Times, and at a news service, ACME News Pictures, which eventually became United Press International. While there, he covered the late night beat, and Manhattan Police headquarters effectively became his base of operations.

Around 1935, Arthur went freelance and embarked on the work for which he would become best known. He put together a fully-functioning darkroom and typewriter in his trunk in order to quickly develop film, document the picture’s subject and details, and get it to the newspapers in time for print. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to beat all manner of emergency vehicle to crime scenes, and so he either earned from others, or bestowed upon himself, the nickname “Weegee”, a phonetic play on the eerie omniscience of the Ouija board. In truth, Weegee’s seemingly psychic ability was dependent on two things; from 1938 on he was the only NY city photographer allowed to have a police radio, which he kept in his car and obviously tipped him off to calls and crime scenes.  What’s more, if he was ever uncharacteristically late to the scene, the NYPD sometimes reenacted busts for his camera. Those advantages aside, the completely self-taught Weegee truly did work wonders with only the most basic equipment, and had an unerring eye when it came to capturing drama, even a director’s eye, when you consider the dramatic recreations. A natural born expert at self-promotion, he stamped all his photos “credit to Weegee the famous”, a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one. Increasingly Weegee landed the juiciest assignments, and soon was able to pick and choose his jobs.

Weegee’s pictures focused on previously unseen nighttime city activities, and captured the neverending urban freakshow in all its glory. He took unflinching, explicit pictures of murder, bloody corpses, wailing and grief stricken mourners, and curious onlookers. Men who seem pulled straight from central casting, in trenchcoats and fedoras, make their perp walk either covering their faces or grinning proudly and defiantly from behind bars and chain link. Weegee also shot the minutiae of night life-—swells decked out for highbrow concerts, youths slicked and dolled for dates. He captured many a uniformed man, the city’s hero and backbone, police eyeing the crowd or firefighters blackened with smoke and ash emerging from burned rubble. All these striking, sensational photos, at least 5000 of murder scenes alone, employed and in turn defined a style now instantly recognizable as noir; harsh, drastic, unforgiving artificial lighting, which reveals darkened corners and characters in stark black and white. Weegee’s photos look like scene stills from the best crime movie never made, an epic about a city teeming with life and activity, where death strikes suddenly and randomly with shocking and senseless results.

Though Weegee denied any aspirations to the “art scene”, he was nonetheless duly proud and flattered when his work was featured and celebrated in exhibitions, including at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where his photos now reside in the permanent collection. A 1941 show featuring his work was called “Murder is My Business” and photos of a similar theme were collected in book form in 1945, a volume Weegee titled Naked City. The content wasn’t entirely new and unprecedented; it was a natural progression of what was then pervasive, a hybrid of tabloid news photos, the March of Time documentary newsreels seen since 1934, and recent graphic wartime footage. A public accustomed to these things easily accepted a similar treatment of places and events back home, and in fact, the year Naked City was published, these styles were present in March of Time producer Louis de Rochemont’s semi-documentary spy-noir The House On 92nd Street. Weegee’s Naked City book was a huge success, and he became the star photographer he predicted he would be, invited to the best parties and doing photo shoots for Vogue and Life magazines.

One reader in particular found Naked City interesting. Screenwriter Malvin Wald was so impressed he showed the book to Mark Hellinger, a pioneering New York columnist turned Broadway playwright/short story writer turned Hollywood producer.  Hellinger had just completed the now classic noirs The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947), and Wald, who had a new script in the works about a big city crime procedural, suggested Hellinger secure the film rights to the brilliantly evocative and popular title Naked City for the project. They weren’t just buying into the cachet of a freshly coined catchphrase. Where Weegee’s book hinted at the endless compelling dark little urban dramas waiting to unfold among New York City’s then 8 million inhabitants, Wald and Hellinger were promising a stylistically similar, but much closer look into just one of those snapshots, a Weegee photo brought to life, in what was to become their groundbreaking cinematic version of New York law and order.

continue reading part 2 of this series…..

See More Weegee:

Weegee’s World   and Weegee pics blog