Although this type of noir story is done today with even more grittier realism than they had in 1948, THE NAKED CITY really holds up superbly. All types of film productions and constructions have to begin at some point, and Jules Daissin's decision to shoot this film in 1948 New York was brilliant.
It is always of double interest to look at a film shot in an earlier version of your city or any city. Buildings that were once seemingly part of the ever present New York Scene turn out to have been as mortal as human beings are. Today if one sees distance shots in 1990 films showing the World Trade Towers, you can see the best example of this (and the most aggravating). The site of the streets of the different ethnic sections of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1948 (now totally different in their main ethnic make-up) is one thing that gets us. Back then the Lower East Side meant Jews. Little Italy meant Italians. Chinatown meant Chinatown. Now Chinatown has expanded into Little Italy, and the Jews (for the most part) moved out of the Lower East Side, and their apartments are full of Latinos.
It is pointed out in one of the reviews that a stumbling block in this film (for a modern audience) was that there is little visibility of African-Americans and Latinos. I would agree it is odd, except most of the investigation of Don Taylor and Barry Fitzgerald was in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. The enclaves (at that time) of African-Americans and Latinos in Manhattan were Harlem and Spanish Harlem, which are on the North side of the Island.
It was a gutsy move to take the film to the City - but Daissin was always innovative in trying to make whatever film he did seem realistic. The subject matter, the murder of a model - turned mistress - turned member of a burglary gang, was also up his alley. Daissin's best films (RIFIFI, TOPKAPI) examine the mechanics of the underworld - how does a jewelry heist get accomplished, how does a the human element undue everything. If John Huston had not done THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, Daissin would have been a perfect substitute for that story as well. Here from a mysterious tragedy, Taylor and Fitzgerald find a story that goes up and down the entire social system, involving professional burglars (Ted De Corsia and Walter Burke), first generation Americans in the rather new suburbs (Adelaide Klein and Grover Burgess), a society doctor who ruins himself (House Jamison), and pathological misfits trying to find a place for themselves in society (Howard Duff). The connecting link is the deceased - a girl who wanted a career and freedom from the stultifying life she left in New Jersey. Instead she found death.
Fitzgerald is criticized for his Hollywood style staginess - actually he probably developed his staginess from exactly that: the stage (the Abbey Players he belonged to, with his brother Arthur Shields, and others who frequently were in John Ford movies). In reality he is not over-the-top. His best moment is when he and Taylor and some other detectives are talking about the case, and Fitzgerald picks up on his "everyman" style suspect that he trots out to solve his mysteries. Fitzgerald is enjoying the moment - he even gave the "everyman" an Irish name. He reasons (quite correctly) that if one just looks at the average criminal as like an "everyman" the behavior mirrored in the crime scenes is fairly simple to figure out, and that you can narrow down the possibilities until you get the right perpetrator. Actually it is a reasonable way of doing it.
Duff's emotional collapse is another highpoint - a pathological liar he finds his lies are meaningless now that they have led to the murder of a harmless girl. Another key scene belongs to Adelaide Klein. Her Mrs. Bathory is absolutely angry at her daughter for leaving home for a life in the City. Why were they living in the suburbs but to escape the grime of the city? She won't say a single thing for the deceased until she sees the girl's corpse, and then just breaks down - she did love the little girl who grew up after all. Jamison's doctor, besotted with the girl who he gave information used for a string of burglaries, also collapses after his confession. He is stopped by Taylor before he can kill himself (more lucky - or less, depending on how you look at it - than Louis Calhern in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE).
Collapse under strain follows even the villain. I wish someone did a real study on Ted De Corsia. One of a string of movie heavies in the noir tradition (with Howard De Silva and Jack Lambert, among others) they replaced the perpetuals of an earlier period (the aristocrats: Zucco, Atwill, Daniel, Macready, Rathbone - not totally but sufficiently because they fit into the roles better). De Corsia had begun only a year before as the obnoxious, blackmailing, and doomed gumshoe for hire Sidney Broome in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, but although quite effective there his character was secondary. Here he is quite cool and controlled (on the surface) bumping off two associates, and nearly a third one, escaping into the anonymity of the city, and even (quite intentionally) just knocking out Taylor because he doesn't want the chair for killing a cop. But in his almost perfect escape his nerves are on edge, and a final, unexpected error leads to his last stand.
Yes, there have been many similar gritty film noir since 1948, and there may be eight million more in our futures - but this was a great one!
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