The late 1940s saw noirs moving away from Expressionism and toward crime dramas with a more pseudo-documentarian style. This resulted in films like "Boomerang", "Detective Story", "The Naked City", "The Enforcer", "The House on 92nd Street", "Code 2", "The Blue Gardenia", "Street With No Name" and "Call Northside 777", most of which eschewed private detectives and noir heroes and focused instead on newspaper reporters, lawyers, lowly cops, bureaucrats and journalists, all characters personally disinterested in the narratives being resolved. All professionals simply doing a job.
"The Naked City", directed by Jules Dassin, isn't the best of these films, but it's perhaps the most influential. Shot on location in New York City, the film's title alludes, amongst other things, to Dassin's cinema verite style, New York laid bare, exposed, naked and raw. Such faux authenticity is commonplace today, but back in the 1940s, was a big deal. The result is Dassin's camera, which salivates over stolen shots of New York City, in which regular people go about their daily business, the city and its inhabitants proceeding as if unobserved. "This is the city as it is," the film's narrator proudly says. "The children at play, the buildings in their naked stone." The film is seriously pleased with its eavesdropping.
Eventually a story develops. A sexually promiscuous woman has been murdered, a crime upon which detectives Dan Muldoon and James Halloran are set loose. We follow them over the course of six days, watching as they do the leg work, trace leads and converge on their suspect. Audiences raised on TV crime dramas will be unimpressed, but such procedurals were novel back in the 1940s.
Luckily the film ends with a bang, Dassin treating us to a long chase sequence in which cops chase a crook across Lower East Side tenements and then up the Williamsburg Bridge. This chase is merely a vehicle for showing off yet more of New York City, but Dassin directs with some style, his camera gliding through rich and poor neighbourhoods, along train tracks, up stairs and eventually up the iron latticeworks of the Williamsburg Bridge.
The film's coda then mirrors its opening portion, our narrator smugly reminding us that we have merely witnessed "one of the city's 8 million tales". Yes, we get it, the city is the star. The film is not a noir, but its contrast between the dreary ordinariness of a police procedural and the vast scale of New York nevertheless conjures up the existential lamentations of noir.
Incidentally, a young Stanley Kubrick would often be on Dassin's set, taking photographs. Kubrick was himself heavily influenced by Dassin's film, his first noir, "Killer's Kiss", taking all the good parts from Dassin's work here and throwing away the fat. Shot on a shoestring, Kubrick's chase through New York's concrete jungles ably matches "Naked's" climactic chase. "The Naked City" also has other Kubrick connections. It was inspired by the work of New York photographer and photojournalist Arthur Fellig, also known as "Weegee". Himself a talented photographer, Kubrick was friends with Fellig, and hired him as a consultant and stills photographer when directing "Dr Strangelove".
7.9/10 – Worth one viewing.
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