Noir-vember Day Seven: The Naked City (1948) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Noir-vember Day Seven: The Naked City (1948)

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As I'm prone to do, I'll be spending my time with Noir-vember focusing on a specific director.  This time, the lucky director is that fantastic purveyor of stylized noir and crime dramas, Jules Dassin.

He spent his formative years making a number of crime pictures and gained some measure of popularity with Brute Force (1947) before working on Naked City (1948).  If anything else, Naked City immortalized itself in film history with the line, "There are eight million stories in the naked city, this is one of them", which bookends the opening and closing of the film.  There are fewer perfect lines written outside of a Billy Wilder film that so encapsulate what the movie is about, but screenwriters Albert Maltz and Marvin Wald managed to do an excellent job with what could have been a  pretty routine story.

Naked City opens with a voice over describing the various activities that are taking place throughout its concrete veins.  Most people are asleep, a few are up playing records on a radio station, some have cleaning to do, and a couple of notable inhabitants are more interested in murder.  Up until the murder, it's not entirely clear which story we'll be following.  But we're human, and we're more interested in the darker places that movies can take us instead of the lighter ones.  That's not always true, but this film knows that we love to watch the violence and murder unfold.

Dassin and company certainly don't under-emphasize this moment.  The two assailants strangle her to death, then stuff her mouth with sleeping pills and drown her in her own bathtub.  Shortly afterward, one of the two gets an attack of conscience and a little too drunk, blabbing on about how he's going to live with himself.  The smarter, and certainly more cold hearted of the two, takes this opportunity to knock him out and dumps his body in the river.  All of this is portrayed with the maximum amount of nightmare potential and looming figures, sharp angles and distorted body proportions.  Shame that the rest of the film doesn't look like this, which is strange for a Dassin film, but we'll get to that in a moment.

If you know you're visual grammar, you should be able to guess the happy fate of one of these individuals.

The brunt of the film takes place on the procedural side of things as Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Detective James Halloran (Don Taylor) investigate the young woman's death.  They go about questioning witnesses, gathering evidence, and trying to piece together the events of the night while the voice over narration that accompanies the film mocks them from point to point. One of my favorite moments is when the officers are just sitting around with some cards during a boring moment in the case and the narrator notes "Ever try to catch a murderer?  It has it's depressing moments."  It's filled with little snaps against the system like this, as some times the officers barely seem interested in catching the murderer.

While the film is directed by Dassin, it's mastermind is really the producer Mark Hellinger.  Hellinger came from a newspaper background and did some work in noir-photography before settling down into a career of producing films.  His influence is clear from the cut and dry way that the story is presented.  He's more interested in showing the underside of the city without over sensationalizing it.  Which, truth be told, means that he didn't really understand how film noir worked but did end up having a hand in creating a fairly unique spin on it.  His Naked City could have sat alongside some of the Italian neorealist classics that were coming out at the same time if it weren't so mired in cynicism and crime.

The style of the film is a strangely anachronistic one.  Because of Hellinger's influence, the film does take a fairly straight ahead approach in filming the officers and criminals over the course of the investigation.  But you can see that Dassin is bursting at the seams to make more out of the various shots that he is left to work with.  As I mentioned before, the opening is masterfully handled, and there are a few tenser moments in the film that are masterful uses of shadow and smoke, those old noir stand by's.

A very brief chase scene gives Dassin the opportunity to pull out everything in his bag of visual tricks.

More so than anything else, it's the story that really sets Naked City in the noir camp.  It all follows a rule that I wish I had discussed more with Ryan a week ago, no one is good or innocent, we're either all bad or playing a role.  The police are merely doing their job and have no real ethical interest in catching the killer.  No one that they speak to is pure, everyone has something to hide and that information is used to hurt others.  Then there's the matter of the killer himself, who is the only person to take a hardline moral stance on anything, and that is willing evil.

There's a lot of fun poking at the general disinterest and cynicism of the people as well.  When the model is first discovered missing it's all anyone can talk about.  Newspapers fly around with her information and people walk the streets terrified.  But, once the killer has been discovered, everyone is a lot less interested.  The paper that was proudly used to pronounce her death is now trash once the headline changes to justice being brought forward.

Yes, there are eight million stories.  This was just another handful that hardly mattered, fading away into the memory of the city, and eventually collecting dust in a waste bit or grave.  There are better Dassin noirs, but there are few that have such wide reaching implications of it's viewers that Naked City does.

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Naked City (1948)

Directed by Jules Dassin.
Written by Albert Maltz and Marvin Wald.
Starring  Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor.
Available from the Criterion Collection.

Posted by Andrew

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