Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Naked City

Cameraman William H. Daniels shooting on the rooftops

Actress Dorothy Hart with Howard Duff

THE NAKED CITY           B           
USA  (96 mi)  1948  d:  Jules Dassin

There are eight million stories in the naked city.  This has been one of them.
—Producer/narrator Mark Hellinger

Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee was a photojournalist who worked Manhattan’s Lower East Side as a press photographer in the 30’s and 40’s following the city’s emergency services and documenting their activity, with an emphasis on crime, creating starkly realistic images of urban life, publishing a book in 1945 of his press photos of murderers, drunks, and corpses entitled Naked City.  Hollywood producer Mark Hellinger, who for many years had been the highest-paid columnist for the nation’s largest newspaper, The New York Daily News, bought the rights to the title, intending to make a movie using Weegee’s gritty aesthetic, moving away from the Hollywood studio backlots and shooting on location in the city, offering a documentary style realism.  Written by Marvin Wald, known for making government documentaries during the war, he followed the investigatory repercussions of a model’s overnight murder, as well as a drunk thrown into the river, creating a meticulously driven police procedural that was a major source of inspiration behind Kurosawa’s STRAY DOG (1949) and serves as a model for all the popular television police procedurals like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000 – 2015) which ran for 15 years, creating various offshoots in New York and Miami, basically saturating the market with urban cop shows.  The film was co-written for the screen by Albert Maltz, one of the original Hollywood Ten who served jail time, a group of ten writers and directors who were cited for contempt of Congress during the Red Scare for refusing to testify about their alleged Communist activity before the House Un-American Activities Committee, resulting in a Hollywood blacklist instituted on November 25, 1947, four months before the release of the film.  Dassin himself, the brilliant director of Brute Force (1947), refused to name names and was summarily driven out of Hollywood and out of the country in the early 50’s, residing in Europe for the rest of his life.  Having grown up in New York (as did the writers and producer), he was fully aware of the neighborhoods and the impactful photographic appeal of shooting on the city streets, accentuating familiar landmarks, utilizing stunning panoramic views and wide-angle shots, copying the abstract style of a city symphony film, like Walther Ruttman’s BERLIN, SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (1927) or Dziga Vertov’s THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929), adopting their newsreel style narrations, though offering a fictionalized depiction onscreen, with a musical score written by Frank Skinner and Miklós Rózsa, creating what amounts to a docudrama that could only marginally be described as film noir.  What’s missing, however, are street noise and city sounds matching the visual artistry.  Winning two Academy Awards for editing and cinematography, the success of the film led to a long-running television series, Naked City (1958 – 63), having significant impact on later TV shows like Hill Street Blues (1981 – 87) and Law & Order (1990 – 2010), with more than half a dozen spinoffs.  The narration, spoken by Mark Hellinger, is a curious aspect of the film, actually commenting on and interacting with the characters as they appear onscreen, offering Brechtian sarcasm and dark humor, even mocking them occasionally, a deliberately cynical style that taken to its extreme produced Lars von Trier’s DOGVILLE (2003).  This is reflective of the times, as there was a postwar weariness and cynicism producing memorable film noirs with darkened themes, troubled protagonists, femme fatales, and exposed criminal activity.  In the Atomic Age, with the bomb grown out of government secrets, the Cold War was just beginning, with heightened suspicions about Communist activity, as citizens were growing paranoid and openly suspicious about their futures.  

Something of a love letter to the city of New York, there are no credits, no title, no lettering of any kind — just an aerial shot of the island of Manhattan at dawn, shot in black and white by William H. Daniels, the principal cinematographer for von Stroheim’s silent film Greed (1924) and Garbo’s personal favorite, including an empty Wall Street still in the shadows and shots of workers at night, among the most potent images of the entire film, with Hellinger’s narration identifying himself as the film’s producer, voicing many of the credits, offering the story of a city.  “This is the city as it is – hot summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people without makeup…There is a pulse to the city and it never stops beating.”  Viewing the city as a living, breathing organism, various night staff are introduced at work, one by one, offering their own comments, leading to an outdoor shot of a still lit apartment window where the blinds are open, with the narrator identifying ex-fashion model Jean Dexter “at the close of her life,” showing two killers suffocating her, turning on the faucets and throwing her into the bathtub, subsequently described in the newspapers as “The Bathtub Murder.”  This story is drawn from the unsolved murder of Dot King in 1923, a famous model (The Butterfly Murders | - The Malefactor's Register), where Hellinger was one of the newspapermen arriving to the murder scene and allegedly knew the victim, so the story stuck with him.  Hellinger was always associated with New York, where his columns specialized in celebrity gossip along with lurid crime reports, developing an excellent rapport with the New York police department, which was the source of much of his material.  Hellinger was so impressed with Dassin that he granted him the right to final approval of the screenplay, while the director’s interest, fueled by his fascination with Rossellini’s ROME, OPEN CITY (1945), lay in applying documentary approaches to Hollywood films, a vision shared by screenwriter Albert Maltz, who urged Dassin (unsuccessfully) to make the natural sounds of the city part of the film and to capture “the architectural beauty and squalor that exist side by side,” revealing a city in stark economic contrasts.  A variety of guerilla filming techniques were utilized to capture the spontaneity of the streets, such as hidden cameras in moving vehicles, a fake sidewalk newsstand with a hidden camera inside, hiring a juggler as a distraction to move large groups of people to a different location, even hiring a man to climb a light post to give a patriotic speech while waving an American flag to get the crowd’s attention, while the police were also involved in crowd control.  Of interest, a young Stanley Kubrick was taking photographs on the set for Look magazine.  While Hellinger promised to give Dassin the final cut he desired, there was blacklist talk in the air, with Universal executives unhappy with early screenings, describing the film as a mere travelogue, threatening to alter the final product.  When Hellinger, only 44 at the time, died of a heart attack a month after the blacklist pronouncement, the final version is significantly altered, enough that Dassin felt it was no longer his film, as any reference to poverty, poor people, or to the human struggle was eliminated, as was any social commentary on the underlying conditions of crime provided by the lead police detective.  At the New York premiere, when the Mayor called Dassin to the stage to take a bow, he walked out, shocked by what was omitted.  Instead, what was printed in the press about the film came largely from studio press releases, with few, if any, comparisons to Italian Neo-Realism.  For Dassin, who went on the make a dozen more films overseas, finally settling in Greece, the most depressing aspect of Hollywood and the American film tradition was the director’s lack of control over the final product, something he did not encounter in Europe.   

With such strict guidelines to produce the film’s realist aesthetic, the same scrutiny does not exist with the performances, much of which is stereotypical and melodramatic, almost as if existing in another film altogether.  While the look of the film is a meticulously staged documentary, supposedly portraying real people in real places, in stark contrast, however, the people onscreen appear anything but real, revealing the artificial limits of realism from a Hollywood studio system.  Starting at home with nice guy Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) at home with his family, a younger, inexperienced war veteran still wet behind his ears, recently transferred to homicide, working with his senior partner, Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald), a stereotypical Irish cop singing Irish songs in his tiny kitchen as he readies himself for work, arriving at the 10th precinct which still stands today serving Chelsea, Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen South and the Hudson Yards, both notified of the apparent suicide of Ms. Dexter, supposedly drowning in her bathtub.  Their investigation, initially slow to develop, reveals otherwise, suggesting she was knocked out with chloroform and drowned alive.  The film unravels through a series of daily routines, narrated throughout, following suspects, witnesses, acquaintances, family members, and anyone else connected to the case, with Halloran doing all the footwork, which is considerable, while Muldoon sticks with the important stuff, questioning Frank Niles (Howard Duff), a professional liar with an ability to create endless smokescreens, but also an acquaintance of the deceased, along with another model Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart) who worked with her, and a doctor who prescribed her sleeping pills, Dr. Stoneman (House Jameson).  Their testimony leads them to two nefarious men who remain at large, Philip Henderson, an apparent lover of the deceased, and Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia in his initial major role), a wrestler with a talent for playing harmonica.  Halloran’s economically stable home life resembles how suburban America was depicted in 50’s television dramas for the next decade, a sunny contrast to the more downtrodden parents of the deceased, including Mr. Batory (Grover Burgess), a gardener from New Jersey who remains in muted silence, and Paula Batory (Adelaide Klein) who has no love lost for her daughter, consumed by disappointment, ashamed of her and letting everyone around her know it, yet reduced to tears once the body has been identified, a couple that has perhaps never known a moment of happiness in their entire lives.  The ritual of the investigation takes us through the dynamic neighborhoods of New York, visiting doctors in Midtown, talent agents in the Bowery, taking the subway out to Queens, to the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side, through dark alleys, police stations, crowded playgrounds, and busy storefronts, always overflowing with the bustling street activity of Manhattan, leading to a spectacular final chase sequence on the Williamsburg Bridge over the East River, chased down in all directions, eventually climbing up to the top of the bridge where he remains perched in isolation holding a gun, offering a bird’s eye view of the city.  Hellinger was apparently unhappy with the final sequence, as it breaks from the earlier tone set by the narrator, becoming a Hollywood action sequence, personalizing the point of view of the outlaw, all but evading his place in the social fabric of the city, where everyone is connected.  As the day comes to a close and night falls on the city, the narrator reacquaints us to a claustrophobic city of eight million people, each with their own story to tell.

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