Wednesday, June 22, 2016


And so as hard a turn I make from meditative auteurs to low-budget 50's horror, I make a turn into 1940's "film-noir"... but is it?

It's easy to classify The Naked City as a film-noir.  It's easy because there isn't a lot of hard work to be done in classifying it as anything else - it's surely on most 'essential film-noir' lists and part of that Alain Silver book and so on - or if it might lose some luster as a lessor film in the significant 'canon' of films made in that golden era of dames and guys with guns in the shadows as deceit and crime happens... but wait, doesn't this have deceit and crime?  And there are dames, sort of, even if one of them is snuffed out in the first couple of minutes, shouldn't that count as part of it, the fact that this character, Jean Dexter, IS the femme fatale of the story, except that everything is about what happens post-mortem? And don't forget the jewel thieves...

It may be simpler enough to call it a "procedural."  That doesn't sound exciting, though, like you're about to go in to the doctor to get your gall bladder checked out.  I'd say it rests somewhere in the middle of a typical noir and what one might call a typical "procedural" mystery story, where the fascination is meant to come in seeing how the characters go from A to B to C and so on and where new leads and pieces of information lead (think of the earliest example of Fritz Lang's M, and recent ones like Memories of Murder or David Fincher's Zodiac or, if you want to look in a non-fiction mini-series format, Making a Murderer).  How do the cops break down who did what to who and where and how and why and when and all those 'W' questions?  That drives The Naked City, but that's not all.

There's two parts to this story that make it still palpable and exciting and at the same time slightly dry and possibly dated: New York city itself, photographed without any veneer of putting aside or hiding the people that crowd the streets and the voices and personalities.  It's not passive or meant for simple local 'color'; the edge is there constantly, as if a crime could happen as the day progresses.

Theres's a large variety of accents (not too many black people I could see though, but that's only a problem if one thinks on it after the movie ends, not so much as one watches it), and the places like Houston street in the east village or by the Brooklyn bridge, Brooklyn and Long Island City, midtown in the nicer parts, the jewelry district, the many shops and the kids on the street singing their aligator hopscotch songs and so on, all of it is part of the major character that is this city.  While films have used the place countless times, I have to think outside of Lumet and Scorsese, as far as this kind of New York city movie, Dassin and his team have the locations down pat.

The narration is more hit or miss.  At first, and for the first half, it works well with the narrative drive.  I think if it had solely been straightforward or too dry it wouldn't pass muster, but there's a sardonic touch of humor to Mark Hellinger's voice performance - and it really IS a performance, impressing on how the story is going and the motivations driving the case - and I liked that.

It's not, for a little while, just spoon-feeding what you're seeing on screen; if the narrator is saying what's on screen as it happens (mostly as the detectives go from place to place, tracking down clues, the nit & grit of having to seek out people and places in that, for younger audiences, somewhat per-Historic era before the internet or computers for easier access to information).  Where it loses me is when it can't let go of moments where Dassin needs to let the images speak for themselves, and in particular the final act, as the main bad guy is on the run, it gets grating and at this point the action and visual grammar of cinema should take over completely.

What else is there that makes The Naked City special?  How about the performances from Barry Fitzgerald (Det Lt Muldoon, as Irish as cops get I suppose) and Howard Duff (the suspect with the most conflict and complexity as a 'crook-but-not-a-killer-I-swear')?  I'm sure I can look up these players, along with Dorothy Hart (as Ruth Morrison, Niles' betrothed and the kind of jilted lover one finds in noirs sometimes) or the detective who is really excited and loves chasing down the clues the most (I forget his name), and find the many roles they had, but they're cast perfectly for the reason that I can't think on first notice what they were in.

There are 8 million people in New York city jails, and this is one of them... no wait, that's not right
 This is important; if you had a Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster or even a Louis Calhern (ie Asphalt Jungle) a certain illusion of reality would be lost, if that makes sense.  These characters should all be as part of the city and the world as naturally as possible as Jean's parents - they have a heartbreaking scene by the way, with a great ebb and flow from one wild emotion to another for the mother, not played for cheap sentiment in any way - and they slip into these characters like they've always been there.

Some of the procedural details may seem like from another time, when the cops (especially in the movies then) could do very little wrong, such as a case like this where it's all about the evil being sussed out among the millions of the city, and that the editing (which won an Oscar oddly enough) can be a little jarring from time to time in those montages (sometimes it's clever and well timed, other times it just randomly goes from one shot to the next).

But you can take Dassin's film on the terms of when it was made as well as that of today - it crackles as a murder mystery and as a look at a world where some characters are doggedly looking for answers and any scraps of information (though it takes time it's not as long as something like Zodiac), and other characters hide their information and true selves.  It's mature about the world it's depicting, and for its stylistic faults it's still sharp and honest and when it means to thrill it doesn't fuck around.

So to sum up: put this on at 1 in the morning, make sure it's completely dark (and that you're awake for it, that's important too of course), and bask in the intrigue of one of 8 million stories told about New York city in the movies (and I'm sure that's how many there are, I counted, trust me officer...)

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