Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Naked City

I've been making an effort to expose myself to more classic noir films recently, which brought me to The Naked City.  I went into this one relatively blind; I hadn't heard anything about the film (aside from hearing that is was a noir) and I didn't recognize anyone involved in it.  In fact, the only thing I was relatively sure of with this movie was that it probably had nothing to do with the first paperback collection of The Tick.
Nothing except prominent Viewmaster use, of course.

The Naked City begins with a surprisingly self-aware voice-over that points out that you are a viewer and this is a movie.  I suppose that self-awareness isn't a bad thing, since this movie isn't about Skynet, but it's kind of annoying.  The narration quickly slips into a more conventional documentary style, similar to the narration in old-timey instructional videos.  As the narrator guides the film from a bird's eye view of New York City down to the teeming streets, the audience becomes witnesses to the murder of Jean Dexter by two unknown men.  The film then focuses on her murder investigation by the experienced Detective Lieutenant Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and the young Detective Halloran (Don Taylor).  Muldoon does most of the thinking, Halloran does the footwork, and the two begin to turn up clues in this seemingly unmotivated murder.
Above: four men discuss an important case, while one silently farts

That's pretty much it.  This isn't a steamy noir so much as it is a conventional police procedural with stunning cinematography.  That doesn't make it bad, but --- like Law & Order episodes --- it does make it pretty boring to summarize.  And like most police procedurals, this story relies more on the way the story is told than the characters involved.

As far as the acting goes, it's all right, but it has gotten a little corny with age.  Barry Fitzgerald plays a wise Irish cop quite well, but he doesn't show anything more than mild concern for the case.  Don Taylor gets a bit more character development, but showing that he is reluctant to beat his child on his wife's command doesn't exactly make him a deep character.
It does make him a wimp, though
Howard Duff was far more entertaining, but the reasons for that are primarily due to how idiotic his character was.  Ted de Corsia gave the film's best performance as the desperate killer, but even his character is surprisingly shallow.
Detectives detect, coaches slouch, and athletes...scissor?

More than any actor, the cinematography stands out today.  While there were other movies made on location at the time, it was still pretty rare.  The Naked City succeeds in having this fictional story play out in the most authentic-looking New York I have seen on film in this period. 
Starring...New York!
It's not just the camera work that makes the city come alive.  The annoying narration manages to give a documentary feel to the story and the occasional voice-over in crowd scenes (while terribly manhandled) was a cool idea that impressed upon me how busy the city really is.
Example crowd voice-over: "He needs a gun to compensate for running like a girl"

Despite enjoying the overall look of the film, I didn't particularly care for director Jules Dassin's film.  The Naked City seems to be an exercise in style; there are a number of dramatic shots incorporating the cityscape, as well as the choice to maintain bookend narration that differed slightly from the story narration.  I have to admit that the movie is visually stunning at times.
Unfortunately, it is only "at times."  For every fantastic visual, there is at least ten minutes of uninspired shots.  I wouldn't pick on the movie for this, if it wasn't for the fact that the story is so vanilla.  There's no crazy twists, there are no real surprises, and we have no reason to support the good guys, aside from the fact that they are pleasant.  When you combine an uninspired story with melodrama, corny dialogue, and outdated production values (it is shocking how often dialogue was obviously recorded over a scene), it becomes very hard to recommend this movie.  On the other hand, the occasionally great camera shots are a treat and the film's closing line, "There are eight million stories in the naked city.  This has been one of them," is pretty fantastic.  That's not enough to overcome my apathy toward the story, but at least you get something of value for watching The Naked City.

And, because the narration reminded me of it, please enjoy this instructional dating video, circa 1950.


  1. Spot-on review. And how odd was the not-wanting-to-spank-the-kid scene? Why was that in there exactly? In a bizarre twist, I kind of enjoyed the narration in this flick. Maybe it was because the narrator was more interesting than most all of the characters. For some good classic Fritz Lang noir, try Scarlet Street (I believe it is on Instant Play). Avoid Lang's Woman in the Window (with much of the same cast) at all costs.

  2. Technically, I believe it was a "not-wanting-to-WHIP-the-kid" scene, which may or may not be far worse than spanking.

    I find it very amusing that we have opposite views on the narration in this and Double Indemnity.

    As for Fritz, Scarlet Street is now on my list.

  3. HAHA Great read that matey!! LOL

    Love the running like a girl caption....and what were those boxers doing?

  4. Yeah, the boxers were weird. This is probably the only film I have seen where boxers are seen practicing, but not actually punching anything.