This time yesterday, Jean Dexter was just another pretty girl. But now she’s the marmalade on 10,000 pieces of toast. In this fashion — by being murdered — this young model becomes one of the stories of The Naked City (1948) which was not just a seminal film noir, but a new departure in many different screen-crafts.
If you were looking for brave film making in 1948, this was it — cutting edge — innovative and yet sticking to some familiar aspects and techniques, as seen its police procedural and final chase and shoot out. It was all the inspiration of Mark Hellinger, who was one of the most ground-breaking producers of the time. And directed by Jules Dassin, whose film noirs always appear in critic's top tens.
Championing the semi-documentary — or is it docu-drama? — The Naked City begins in the air above New York, with the friendly voice of its producer Mark Hellinger introducing the film's concepts, conceits and techniques. Hellinger won the 1947 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture for The Killers, but also died that year, tragically young at 44.
Then the camera swoops to the streets, and tours New York for the viewer. This is all narrated by Hellinger himself, and is a marvellous introduction in a style that carries on to great effect throughout the picture. In other parts of the picture, you get this same narration; Hellinger voices the thoughts of regular New Yorkers whom we see on the streets, and in the subways. In other parts he provides the voices of the detetcives, who are filmed on the street and sometimes even in the distance, in order to capture as much ambience as possible.
The Naked City might have even had more of the feel of a documentary about it, had it not cast Barry Fitzgerald in the lead. This is 1948 and film is crossing over into a new style, and it is odd that the verity of the streets and the photography is combined with the vaudevillian performances of several of the actors, Barry Fitzgerald largely. A naturalistic setting such as The Naked City presents would of course benefit from naturalistic acting — but naturalistic acting hadn’t been invented yet. See the scene when someone comes to the police station and confesses to the murder — it’s theatrical and an attempt at fit, punch-packing hardboiled dialogue. Thus The Naked City plunges back and forth from documentary to melodrama, like a fast flipping coin.
Hellinger voices over something like: "Don't worry darling. very few stenographers are murdered!"
There were some other real ground-breakers involved in The Naked City, and not just producer Mark Helligan. There was director Jules Dassin and writer Albert Maltz , and the music was by Miklós Rózsa, who became one of Hollywood’s most popular composers.
Dassin was one of the high flying young directors in the post war period, and made films that were in some cases unlike most anything else from that era. They still stand good viewing today — Brute Force (1947) — the A-Number One film noir prison movie — and Thieves Highway (1948), which is genius on wheels.
Predicatbly, Dassin was blacklisted by the industry in the course of the HUAC hearings in 1947, and in fact Dassin said that said Darryl F. Zanuck called him into his office in 1948 to inform him he would be blacklisted, but he still had enough time to make one more movie for Fox — another example of the paranoia and opportunism, the stupidity and fearful (and in Joseph McCarthy's case drunken) power of the pathetic HUAC bunch.
Melodrama and Realism make a strange mix. Shot in a real diner in New York in 1947, one actor strikes and pose using skills from her silent movie and stage career, while the other one tries to blend in.
The Naked City is experimental and forward looking and it's possible that these very facts were signposts for the wrath of Senator Dies and J. Parnell Thomas who were at this precise time in American history about to dump a ten ton multipack of crap on the industry, and had already started doing so by the time this was produced. There were a lot of blacklistees working on this picture; one can compare this sort of thing by looking at the lists provided in the imfamous publication RED CHANNELS.
For a film that uses so many new ideas, The Naked City is also strong in drama and is extremey watchable — it's outlived a lot of films that were more popular in its day. But it’s the lack of studio sets which give The Naked City its edge. Often, like in the scene in the mortuary, some of the tightness we are used to from snappily edited dialogue shot on a sound stage is lost. But then, the characters in this case exit the mortuary for a scene in the sunset under the Brooklyn Bridge, which although it looks slightly unusual, would have not been possible under studio conditions. Even though back projection of the bridge would have probably looked better in 1948 than actually shooting the actors and the bridge, it yet gives The Naked City its documentary feel.
Using the streets allowed for many unusual twists and additions, many of which feature regular New Yorkers.
Outside the apartment of the murdered model Jean Dexter, a crowd has gathered and in the crowd, someone is selling balloons. Throughout The Naked City there are so many incidental street scenes that anyone with an interest in seeing New York in the 1940s will be delighted and amazed. You’ll also see white collar workers, a sidewalk salesman hawking neckties, an ice man with giant-sized callipers, a milkman driving a horse and wagon, a Kosher Deli, kids on swings and perennial sights like people reading newspapers over someone else's shoulder while jolting along on the subway.
There is a strange and surreal moment just before the end, when the hunted criminal looks off the Williamsburg Bridge at groups of people far below, playing tennis.
Finally, there is a dramatic shootout on a tower of the Williamsberg Bridge, preceded by a chase which also has its own cast of characters — including a blind man and his dog.
Dassin, who was born in Middletown, Connecticut in 1911, was still not considered American enough to stay off the blacklist. In fact he was by origin Russian Jewish, and HUAC was of course noticeably anti-Semitic in its attacks. Dassin joined the Communist Party USA in the 1930s and left it after the Hitler–Stalin Pact in 1939, but any subversion he may have carried out was restricted entriely to this kind of genre-blending in his film noirs.
Albert Maltz who wrote this highly seditious and subversive film, fell even farther foul of HUAC and was one of the Hollywood Ten who were jailed in 1950 for their 1947 refusal to testify before the US Congress about their involvement with the US Communist Party. This denied another promising writer employment in the industry for many years. It probably mattered at the time that he was Jewish. It did not matter that as a patriotic American, Albert Maltz in 1944 published the novel The Cross and the Arrow, a best seller telling of German resistance to the Nazi regime. This novel was distributed in a special Armed Forces edition to more than 150,000 American fighting men during World War 2, a fact which did not however save Maltzer.
As a result of this uncessary punishment and blacklisting, Albert Maltzer barely worked from 1948, when he made The Naked City, until the 1970s when he gave us The Beguiled (1971) and Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). Maltzer had written The Robe in 1953, but could not be credited for it, and maybe worse, his screenplay for Broken Arrow won the 1951 Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Western, but he could not be credited for that either, nor accept the award, as he was already being shunned by his former friends and colleagues. Stinking town, Hollywood in the 1950s.
New York from The Williamsburg Bridge
Watch THE NAKED CITY on YouTube
Time To Reflect
The film ends with the now famous line: "There Are Eight Million Stories In The Naked City; This Has Been ONE Of THEM".