Our crime movie series continues with a look at the classic, pioneering police procedural that spawned a popular TV series.
“There are eight million stories in The Naked City”. So says the narration at the conclusion of this film, a phrase that would later become the introduction to the famous TV series that spun off from this movie. This is the first of those stories.
The Naked City is often described as film noir, but it’s really not if you stick to very narrow definitions of what ‘noir’ is (of course, we don’t, as we previously explained) – sure, it’s a gritty, black and white crime movie that appeared at the height of the noir era, but this is very different in approach. Noir essentially tell stories of the criminal and the helpless sap who finds life suddenly falling apart during a rapid descent into murder and madness. But while there is murder at the heart of this story, the emphasis here is very much on the police procedural. With its semi-verité style and location shooting – both unusual for the time – this 1948 film might more accurately be seen as the granddaddy of the modern cop show, setting in place many of the elements we are now familiar with; now-familiar tropes like the seasoned older cop teamed with the younger rookie, the methodical investigation working through suspects, red herrings false leads and forensic evidence all started here.
Narrated with a certain whimsy by producer Mark Hellinger – who died shortly after the film was completed – the movie immediately sets out to establish its sense of realism. During the spoken opening credits, Hellinger makes sure to point out that everything was shot entirely on location – not the usual thing at the time – and the film itself goes out of its way to portray the real world. So in the opening scenes, we see the lives of everyday New Yorkers – some of whom will be a part of the story, others simply passing figures, though of course, we don’t necessarily know which is which at this point. We also see the closing moments of the murder of ex-model Jean Dexter, and it is this case that we will follow through the rest of the film.
Right away, the film gets our attention. You just don’t see murders like this on film – clumsy, already in progress as we join it and with no attempt to hide the identity of the killers. This isn’t a whodunit – we are not being asked to guess who the murderer is from a collection of exotic characters. Rather, this is a hamfisted and opportunistic crime carried out by a pair of petty thugs, and the film is less concerned with who they are than it is with the methods that will be used to identify and apprehend them.
Leading the investigation is veteran Irish detective Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and his new assistant Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), and right away, the film seems notable for what it doesn’t do. For a start, this isn’t the usual mismatched pair who grow to respect each other, as per every buddy cop film you can think of. No, they respect each other just fine and simply get on with their jobs in a calm, unfussy manner. They don’t have any particular emotional attachment to the case or the victim, which is a welcome change from the usual cop film and TV show where there is an increasingly cliched idea that a policeman should treat each case as if it was some sort of personal attack on his family (sadly, too many real policemen, possibly having seen too many fake policemen on film, seem to think they have to be emotionally involved with cases these days, even though that doesn’t remotely seem a sensible or productive way of investigating a crime and is probably going to lead to terrible miscarriages of justice as emotion overrides a dispassionate examination of the evidence).
Suspect Number One is Frank Niles (Howard Duff), a smooth-talking lothario who is unable to stop lying, even when his lies are exposed within a couple of hours – you know the sort. He’s engaged to Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart), another model and friend of the victim, but it’s clear he had more than a casual relationship with the dead girl. The question is, what exactly was between them, and who is her mysterious older admirer known as ‘Mr Henderson’? As the story progresses, it soon emerges that Jean Dexter was no angel, being part of a gang of jewel thieves and fences, and it was this involvement in the criminal underworld that ultimately led to her death.
Standing in contrast with the popular detective films of the era, in which cases were always solved by the glamorous and monied amateur rather than the bumbling coppers (despite the fact that you imagine most of the evidence these gentleman/lady detectives uncover through often dubious means would be immediately declared inadmissible in court and so allow murderers to get off scot-free), this is a film that places its emphasis on a slow, methodical investigation. So we see crime scene investigators dusting for prints, taking murder scene photos and sketches, interviewing witnesses and following up leads in a way that Sherlock Holmes would probably have dismissed as too dull and prosaic. That it isn’t dull and prosaic here is a credit to director Jules Dassin, who ensures that there are usually several things going on at once, and a cast of characters who all seem authentically real – we buy into this procedural activity because it feels genuine and fascinating. The film throws a few swerves into the proceedings too, in order to keep the audience on their toes. The arrival of Jean’s parents to identify her body allows for an emotive vignette as they rail against her fast-living lifestyle and disown her, only to break down when finally confronted with her corpse. It’s a small moment, but it’s a powerful one that is unusual in crime films of the era (and, for that matter, even now), where victims were all too often mere cyphers and no one bothered to think about the fact that they might have loved ones whose lives were shattered by their death.
The film also makes room for a couple of action sequences – there’s a gripping street chase midway through the story and the powerful climactic scenes where the police dragnet closes in on the killer as he makes a desperate, pointless attempt to escape, a move so pathetically futile that it is almost painful to watch.
The Naked City is a film that has hardly dated in many ways, still feeling fresh and gripping now. It’s a film that still looks visually sharp, holds your attention and creates tension even though the traditional elements of suspense and mystery are not a part of the story. It’s no surprise that this would go on to inspire a TV series and you can see its influence in crime dramas even now. Whether or not it is Noir in the purest sense hardly matters – it’s a must-see for any fan of the genre.
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