Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Naked City

The Naked City (1948)
Dir. Jules Dassin
Written: Albert Maltz, Malvin Wald
Starring Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor

What we got here is an interesting little crime story from 1948 which isn’t particularly well-remembered today, but stands out as something a bit unique. It’s primarily a film noir from just around the time that genre was starting to crystallize the elements which would eventually become iconic of it. But it’s also sort of influenced by that whole Italian Neo-Realist deal, so along with the gothic cinematography, hardboiled lawmen and femme fatales, you’ve got the self-conscious use of real locations, non-actor extras, and documentary-style narration. Mixing the high stylization of film noir with realism isn’t a perfect fit, but it’s worth a look because this kind of genre hybrid is rare, and particularly since the two genres it hybridizes were both in their infancy at the time. It’s fun to see director Jules Dassin playing around with the rules of genre while those rules are still being formed.

Even though it's all or mostly shot on location, Dassin doesn't miss the opportunity to turn the geography into an expressionistic abstraction. This image has almost a Gustav Klimt quality to it.

The specific plot here isn’t that important. There’s a murder, so a wildly stereotypical Irish detective (Barry Fitzgerald, a green bowler short of a leprechaun*) and his young colleague (Don Taylor, later director of ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES) rope in some suspects (Ted de Corsia, Howard Duff, others) and begin to unravel a fairly mundane web of foul play which eventually leads to lies, clues, exciting chases, and so on. Pretty standard stuff. The fun of it, though, is watching Dassin labor to fit the noir conventions into a world which feels very real and alive. It opens with a typically hollywood bullshit production-code era murder of a young woman, her murderers lurking in the shadows or obscured by giallo hand-cam angles. It’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect in any film noir, except that it’s cut together with scenes --real and staged-- of other stories transpiring at the same time throughout the city. We see a couple with a young kid, a morning DJ spinning records, even our yet-to-be-introduced protagonist Det. Muldoon eating breakfast. These juxtapositions serve to remind you that these stories extend beyond the narrow confines of our central murder mystery, out into the vast sea of humanity roaring all around it.

The long, slow plod through the false leads, lies, femme fatales, and colorful New York locales that the movie has to inevitably take to draw our trusty lawmen to their quarry has plenty of the usual landmarks of such narrative terrain, but also feels peppered with details intended to flesh it out, make it more real. Eschewing most of the dramatic denouements common to the genre, Dassin and writers Maltz and Wald instead seem to particularly delight in showing their hard-nosed detectives grinding their way through mundane details. Minute clues require hundreds of hours on-foot to follow up on -- at one point, they show dozens of officers painstakingly canvassing every gym in New York City to ask if anyone there remembers a wrestler who liked to play harmonica. Lt. Muldoon’s command of the crime scene clues almost evoke a CSI:1948 fixation on the not-yet-common-practice field of forensic science.

Top o' the morning to ya.

Dassin may have hoped that infusing his Hollywood film noir with little pieces of reality would make it more believable, but actually it has the opposite effect, starkly pointing out how arch and stagey acting and writing were at this point. Occasionally the two world do meet happily --as in the memorable and strikingly shot final chase sequence through the rafters of the Brooklyn bridge-- but mostly the movie’s serviceable fiction can’t stand up to the bursting-at-the-seams liveliness of the reality it’s juxtaposed against. But that’s OK, because it still has the more interesting effect of evoking the story’s tiny place in the vast tapestry of New York City life. Even if this particular story stands out as being a bunch of Hollywood nonsense, it feels vastly richer for taking place in a city where every outdoor frame finds a million tiny signs of multitudinous humanity. If it doesn’t exactly make the details feel more legit, it does blur the lines in a way which was certainly unusual for the time and still feels rewarding today. There really do seem to be, as the closing narration tells us, “eight million stories in the naked city. This [is] one of them.”**

*Fitzgerald, interestingly, is the only actor in history to be nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same role (in 1944’s GOING MY WAY). Shame he couldn’t get nominated for Best Actress too, but I guess two outta three ain’t bad.

** I'd wondered why one of my favorite movies of all time, Spike Lee's SUMMER OF SAM, ends with Spike standing in front of the camera saying this line. Now I know, and I approve wholeheartedly. SUMMER is a very different film, but it has the same broad interest in the city of New York as a living, breathing entity all of it's own.

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