Place Procedural: Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) – Blu-ray review
Its innovations in form and subject might be commonplace, and its trusting tone a thing of the past, but filmmaking this strong holds up.
The Naked City
(Jules Dassin, 1948)
As the closing narration puts it, “there are eight million stories in the naked city; this is one of them.” So it’s no surprise that Jules Dassin’s thriller inspired a spin-off TV series, or even that its detailed focus on police procedural remains the stuff on which countless shows depend. Aside from the specifics of its setting – the use of telephone operators to connect calls; the references to where and with who characters fought during WWII – not much has changed.
Plot-wise, that gives The Naked City an undeserved battle to stay fresh, given that contemporary audiences can second-guess revelations that might have shocked back in 1948. Even so, there’s a commendable willingness to respect the title’s uncloaking of convention; even in the era where films were noir, this is a clear-eyed look at greed, duplicity and lust, in which the sheer size of New York City enables the unscrupulous to flourish. Meanwhile, the focus on characterisation makes this a worthy template, especially in Barry Fitzgerald’s Zen-like calm as the detective on the case: a mild-mannered prototype for Columbo and his ilk.
Even so, the real reason why Dassin’s film has lasted as such a source of fascination lies in its then-pioneering decision to shoot entirely on location. The opening sequence is so carried away by this innovation that it foregoes credits entirely to enable the breathless narrator to explain the behind-the-scenes coup. These days, it sounds cute and naïve – until you see how well Dassin uses those locations. Rarely has a cop drama been so energised by the narrative possibilities to go anywhere within the big city.
So Dassin stages scenes on the street, in cafes, in sports clubs, even if only for a few seconds, as if the film is a documentary survey of New York life. While this isn’t as stridently political as Dassin’s Brute Force, there remains the sense that Dassin is fundamentally interested in people – rather than archetypes – in a way that few of his more melodramatic peers could match. Dassin happily hangs back from the story to observe (for example) two women dreaming of buying a dress in a posh shop window; symbols of a city that drives ordinary people into a frenzy of consumerism.
Similarly, the treatment of one key suspect, a liar and a crook nonetheless so defined by his flawed scruples that he’s horrified at the accusation of being a murderer, has a real modern edge familiar from the anti-heroes who populate today’s dramas. Now, Dassin would be celebrated; back then, it was more ammunition for blacklisting him. It’s crazy, really, considering that if anything Dassin is soft on the cops, whose straight-arrow, all-American do-gooding looks naïve after decades of seeing corruption in the ranks. You can almost picture James Ellroy watching this and wondering ‘what if the good guys were as bad as the bad guys?’
The docudrama approach isn’t perfect, then – and in the moments where we see young detective Halloran’s home life, any pretence at verisimilitude is abandoned entirely in favour of cheesy (and outdated) marital banter about taking his belt to his naughty son. But the flow of the film is consistently fascinating. When Dassin goes into thriller mode, William Daniels’ (Oscar-winning) inky, Weegee-inspired visuals have something of the quality of Fritz Lang, especially in the climactic manhunt for the killer. At other times, though, Dassin lets the city’s imagery speak for itself, in (also Oscar-winning) crisply edited, stirringly allusive montages that act as the missing link between Man With A Movie Camera and Woody Allen’s Manhattan.
The Naked City is out now on Blu-ray. Stuffed extras include an insightful 40-minute video essay on cinematic depictions of the New York by the great critic Amy Taubin.
Tagged 1940s Cinema