The Naked City: the Movie
“Ladies and gentlemen, the motion picture you are about to see is called the Naked City. My name is Mark Hellinger; I was in charge of its production, and I may as well tell you frankly, that it’s a bit different from most films you’ve ever seen.”
With those words, and the magnificent accompanying aerial shot of New York City, Hellinger introduces us to a film that promises to bring Weegee’s photos to life, and to characters ranging from producer himself to the stars to the people of New York. Hellinger links all these elements together as inseparably as he himself was linked in life to the city and to noir.
A pioneering Broadway tabloid columnist and theater critic, an unabashed fan and booster of New York, Hellinger also wrote short stories and plays, then signed with Warner Brothers in 1937 as a story consultant. His story for The Roaring Twenties (1939) got him promoted to producer, and his first major project in that position was They Drive by Night (1940), a film in which he fought to cast Ida Lupino. He reteamed with Lupino and director Raoul Walsh for High Sierra (1941). Clashes over interference by Warner’s production executive Hal Wallis led to Hellinger’s resignation, a brief stint at Fox (Lupino followed him there), and a return to Warner’s in 1942 when Wallis was promoted effectively out of Hellinger’s way. After a six month leave to cover the war for Hearst papers (on personal request from William Randolph H. himself), Hellinger returned to find Warner’s a place still “unreceptive” to his ideas, and finally landed at Universal in August 1945. There, he finally assumed full producer duties, and made noirs like the Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947), a bleak prison story directed by Jules Dassin, the first of his string of influential noirs. Hellinger’s sensibilities and background as a tabloid journalist and his knack for picking talent made his films (with the possible exception of the gothic near-noir The Two Mrs. Carrolls, 1947) dynamic, gritty, urban and hard-hitting. His next project would only improve on the formula.
Screenwriter Malvin Wald (brother of Jerry, who produced Mildred Pierce, Clash by Night, Key Largo) had been working on a story idea centering on a Brooklyn police department, its hard working detectives and forensic experts. They, not a lone wisecracking private eye, would be the heroes and crime solvers. Wald’s script owed as much to his Brooklyn background as it did to extensive research in NYPD files. The story, originally called “Homicide”, ended up as an amalgam of several real investigations, and in a case of cosmically great timing, the runaway success of Weegee’s book Naked City provided not only a catchy title but a host of newly forged associations to New York City crime, and loads of potent imagery to draw from. Wald said he and Hellinger knew from the start that they “were making a new genre that became the police procedural”.
The film’s opening minutes show two murders occurring in the darkness of early morning, first two men over a woman’s body, then one of those men killing the other. As day breaks, we meet Barry Fitzgerald, on loan from Paramount a few years after winning the 1944 Oscar for Going My Way. He plays Lt. Dan Muldoon, 38-year veteran of the Homicide squad, the older, wiser cop who has really seen it all. “Haven’t had a hard day’s work since yesterday”, he sighs, as the news comes in of the blonde found dead in her bathtub. Muldoon’s a kind man who only seems crotchety and harmless– he knows his stuff and can just as easily threaten as charm the suspects out of the trees when he means business (I wouldn’t be the first to recognize Columbo as a direct descendant of Muldoon’s). Muldoon likes to work with and mentor the young war vet and detective Jimmy Halloran, played by clean cut, lanky and likeable Don Taylor. Halloran’s told more than once in the film that he’s “good looking”, but more importantly he’s conscientious, studious, keen and observant. Muldoon tests him, plays Devil’s advocate, and watches, amused, as Halloran’s gears turn while he figures it out “for himself”. Halloran provides the physicality; the youthful brawns to Muldoon’s brain, as well as providing a brief interlude from the hot, dirt noisy city, when he goes home to his wife and son, where his biggest concerns are moving the boy’s tricycle or scolding him for crossing the street. Halloran and Muldoon, with a large forensic support team, comb the dead blonde’s apartment. Turns out she’s dress model Jean Dexter, who’s left behind her Jersey Polish background in her climb to urban sophistication. Men’s pajamas found in her flat might belong to a tall, thin, 50-ish “Mr. Henderson”, and Jean’s bags of jewels are missing, except for one ring, the “black star sapphire” which leads to the mystery’s major players.
From the start, the story emphasizes the investigative routine—rules and procedures the CSI franchise and numerous other shows have by now well drilled into our brains—don’t touch or move anything, collect every scrap of what might turn out to be evidence, even if it doesn’t look like much, and follow every clue. As Hellinger says in his voiceover: ”what solves a case is a thousand questions, legwork and brainwork”. Cases are solved “step by step,” by pounding pavement (“oh my poor feet!” laments Halloran), by showing pictures and endlessly asking: “ever seen a guy looks like this?” Loose strands are woven together into a profile; Muldoon introduces everyone to his “old friend J.P. McGillicuddy”, whom today crime shows like Criminal Minds call the “UnSub” or unknown subject. This method produces an early lead, the squirmy and shady Frank Niles (Howard Duff, pictured above) a grade-A heel if there ever was one. He’s caught lying about serving in the Army (he didn’t), lying about the success and legitimacy of his “consulting” business (it’s none of those things), and denying he knows Jean’s friend and dress model Ruth, played by Dorothy Hart (he’s actually engaged to her). Though he has an alibi, Niles seems central to the case, and certainly guilty of something. It’s not until pawned and stolen jewelry leads back through Ruth to Niles, who’s been attacked by “McGillicuddy,” that a theft ring, their henchmen’s greed and reasons for the murders are exposed. It all boils down to Willie Garza, a fearsome, sweaty, acrobatic, harmonica playing ex-wrestler, played by Ted De Corsia in a most memorable first role. While Muldoon is off with Niles tracking Henderson, Halloran makes a rookie mistake and unwisely goes it alone, finding but failing to outwit Garza, thereby kicking off one of the greatest chase sequences ever filmed, one that winds through the back alleys and streets of the East side, to the Williamsburg Bridge, and from there high up into the sky.
Dassin used every opportunity to frame a scene in order to showcase over 100 NYC locations. Through windows of offices and phone booths, down crowded streets, sidewalks and subway platforms, off the tops of unfinished skyscrapers—there are countless beautiful shots of the city’s endless motion, its life, history and future. It is truly, as Hellinger says, a movie “of the city as it is.” The city-as-main-character speaks through open windows, with the sounds of children playing, the traffic or the elevated train rumbling by. The city is a deceptive figure blamed by Jean’s parents for luring their daughter, then consuming her and making her insignificant. “This time yesterday she was just another pretty girl. Today she’s the marmalade on ten thousand pieces of toast”, by the end of the film, Jean’s just yesterday’s news, newsprint in the gutter.
From the film’s opening minutes, the actors’ scenes are cut in with vignettes of city activities, and throughout, the spotlight is often given to many New Yorkers whose words are scripted or whose thoughts Hellinger “voices”. The intent, which was aided by not casting huge, expensive and potentially distracting stars, was to weave together the real and fictional, to give the impression that we are seeing a slice of life, a documentary, a Weegee picture with a full story. Weegee himself had no role as consultant on the film, and so he received no credit, but his presence is strongly felt nonetheless. In Alain Silver and James Ursini’s book The Noir Style, Linda Brookover analyses Weegee’s influence on noir in general, and especially how Dassin recreated specific photos in The Naked City. For example, Weegee’s “Summer on Lower East Side” (1937) is faithfully brought to life in the scene where kinds play in the spray of a fire hydrant. Brookover also points out how Hellinger’s voiceover is “in keeping with the offhanded and sardonic tone” of Weegee’s own photo captions and recorded remarks, though much of that style should also be attributed to Hellinger’s own journalistic background, as well as budgetary concerns, because his voiceover was added in some parts just to cover the problem of the street microphones picking up too much noise. Location shoots were not new, but still rare in 1948, and were being increasingly used to great effect in a number of noirs. Sometimes bystanders reacted with surprise at the scripted action unfolding before their eyes; at other times they were completely unaware of the filming and captured in their “natural habitat”, thanks to the innovative technique of shooting secretly from inside a truck fitted with a two-way mirror, like the best surveillance vehicles.
The film was a financial success, but some critics found the story thin. Critic James Agee said the film was shot “with a lovely eye for space, size and light… a visually majestic finish”, though he had little use for the “naïve” story. The New York Times also called the script “overwritten and even contrived”. Accurate or not, their assessment was somewhat echoed when the Academy awarded Oscars for editing (to Paul Weatherwax), and for black & white cinematography (to William Daniels), but only a nomination for Malvin Wald and co-writer Albert Maltz (who had done a script polish).
The stressful weeks of shooting in all those locations, in the grueling heat of NYC’s hottest summer on record to that point, dealing with a huge project with a big budget and even bigger crowds of onlookers, contributed to Mark Hellinger’s death of a heart attack at the age of 44, a few months before the film’s release. For all his time in Hollywood, Hellinger remains inextricably linked to New York, through the memorable treatment of the city in his writing and films and also through the added tribute of a Broadway theater named after him. Dassin, who was disappointed at the movie’s final cut, made another noir, Thieves’ Highway (1949) then when his name came up at the HUAC hearings, was rushed to London by Darryl Zanuck, who got Dassin started on shooting Night and the City (1950). Dassin remained in exile in Europe, where he eventually made classics like Rififi (1954) and Topkapi (1964). He married actress Melina Mercouri in 1966, and died March 31, 2008, aged 96.
The Naked City was fresh and new in 1948; it set the standard for what has become cliché over the thousands of hours of derivative film and TV that it inspired. The team of Muldoon and Halloran, the older and younger cop, teacher and student, became the familiar character combination for many a story and series, from the Streets of San Francisco through Se7en (1995). The procedural format has since sent various branches of the law searching and frantically chasing through many a “big city,” from Dragnet in Los Angeles, through the mystery city in Hill Street Blues and back to its origins in New York in the French Connection (1971), NYPD Blue, Third Watch, Law & Order, to name only a few. But even with the film’s release, the naked city’s “eight million” stories were anything but exhausted, and that potential was to spawn yet another incarnation in a third medium, bringing even more gritty urban stories into people’s homes each week.
THE NAKED CITY is also available on Criterion DVD