' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Naked City (1948)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Naked City (1948)

“The Naked City” contains perhaps the most famous two lines in cinematic voiceover history, so famous that everyone knows them whether or not they have seen the film. They go like this: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” Of course, those lines don’t arrive until the very end and the narrator (Mark Hellinger) is omnipresent throughout, adding perhaps the most critical layer of texture to Jules Dassin’s, uber-gritty, icona-classic noir film. Beginning with the camera checking up on all manner of New York locations, iconic and unmemorable and in-between, Hellinger advises us that what we are about to watch is yes, most assuredly, a movie. It is, however, a movie unlike most with which we as an audience would have been familiar at the time.


It was shot not on sound stages but on real live New York locations, its camera moving to and fro, freely, throughout the city and allowing people and cars to move liberally in the background of shots out windows to reinforce the impression that what we are watching is the real thing. William H. Daniels won the Academy Award for Cinematography and it’s richly deserved, not simply for carrying his camera around on bona fide concrete but for the way he makes so many tried & true cobs & robbers moment ring out instead with a kind of NYC neo-realism. Consider the brief shootout set on a fire escape. Daniels places his camera in a wide shot from just below, cross-cutting occasionally with more intimate action, but that broader angle makes it seem as if the audience was simply passing by below, perhaps on its way home after dinner and a show, and wandered into the middle of the wild, wild east.

It feels like we’re eavesdropping on an entire city, awake and at play. It’s 1 AM on a Sunday night, Hellinger tells us, and like the journalist he really was in real life the camera elicits the sensation of a newspaperman’s point-of-view, out and about at an ungodly hour and trying to find a story to weave for the morning papers. As the camera flits about, momentarily stopping on all manner of residents, For the briefest of moments, we linger on a woman cleaning the floor of a bank, and hear her mutter to herself: “sometimes I think this world is made up of nothing but dirty feet.” It sounds, doesn’t it, like the opening sentence to some tightly coiled mystery book that turns out better than its cover might lead you to believe, and I half-yearned for “The Naked City” to track a day in her life. Ah, but you know what hackneyed movie newscasters say: If it bleeds, it leads.

That’s how we end up, when the opening monologue is all said and done, in the apartment of Jean Dexter, a model who’s just been murdered. We meet the murderers, so their identity is no secret even if their motivation is. We meet the detectives assigned to the case who go through the requisite motions and reversals, conducting interviews and following leads, eventually untangling the web. And what’s surprising is just how ordinary this entire criminal investigation feels. Surprises are minimal and no deeper psychological insight is truly gleaned from the wrongdoing itself or from those who perpetrated it. And that’s okay, because the very point of the case at the core of “The Naked City” is its ordinariness. If this is but one of 8 million stories then it’s reasonable to assume, right, that, say, 1.7 million other stories are akin to this one.


The city is the main character and its actual characters are simply playing supporting parts, beholden to the city’s simultaneous overwhelming size and suffocating intimacy. To live it, you have to make peace with hit, as Det. Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) has done. He may have been on the force for two decades but he’s not grizzled, not depressed, not counting the days ‘til retirement. There’s a magnificent shot when he’s perched at his window watching a few girls below playing a rope-jumping game and speaks to the way he treats detective work – as a game. Every new development results in heightened eyebrows, a quizzical smile.

His partner, Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), is the obligatory newbie, and the only scene that gets away from the urban jungle is one at home with his wife which is set to chirping music like it’s a scene from The Donna Reed Show. And yet, a subtle undercurrent of darkness lingers, emblemized by his wife asking her hubby to give their son a spanking. Jimmy seems to know he needs to but can’t bring himself to do it, likely because his hearth & home is his safe haven, the place where everything is supposed to be as happy as that music on the soundtrack makes it seem.

That’s what makes the end so powerful. On the surface, it’s just another chase sequence topped with a case of Climbing Killer Scenario. But it’s so much more. It’s the principal villain thinking he can be swallowed up by the city, never to be found, only to wind up completely exposed and helpless, which is pretty much the perfect metaphor for what the big city inevitably does to us all.

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