The Naked City: The Criterion Collection
There have been few photographers who captured a city's character like Weegee, the photojournalist (true name Arthur Fellig) who portrayed New York City's oddballs, debutantes, accident victims, and grotesques with spot-on, black-and-white clarity. The first collection of his photos, "Naked City," appeared in 1945 and served as inspiration for newspaperman-turned-theater critic-turned-producer Mark Hellinger, who wanted to follow up his Hemingway adaptation The Killers (1946) with a picture in which the Big Apple would be the film's true star. Directed on location by Jules Dassin, The Naked City (1948) used the pretext of a police procedural to take the viewer on a tour of New York, from the high-rise penthouses of the very rich to working-class apartments, city sights, and sleazy taverns. Winner of two Academy Awards for Editing and for Black-and-White Cinematography, the film's influence on cinema is inestimable, both as a crime drama and as an example of noir style. Long-time character actor Barry Fitzgerald received top billing in the picture, but Hellinger's concept of making New York the star remained intact there are, as Hellinger intones, eight million stories in the naked city, and The Naked City presents it as a swarming beehive of humanity, full of pain, courage, love, sadness, and savagery.
Fitzgerald plays Lt. Frank Muldoon, lead detective investigating the murder of model/party girl Jean Dexter. With his underling Det. James Halloran (Don Taylor) running down leads and gathering clues, Muldoon pulls in witnesses, sorts through a web of falsehoods and fabrications, and narrows the field to two probable suspects a ne'er-do-well playboy (Howard Duff) and a crafty goon (Ted de Corsia). Halloran's investigation takes him all over New York, with Dassin shooting on location in restaurants, apartments, bars, and famed outdoor landmarks. Relying on his wits (and a heavy dose of Irish humor), Muldoon pieces together the mystery until finally facing down the killer in an iconic scene atop the Brooklyn Bridge.
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The story of The Naked City, such as it is, could be transplanted into anything from "Dragnet" to "CSI" with just a few tweaks, and it's fascinating in today's forensics-obsessed culture to watch detectives crack a case using old-school methods. But the real reason to watch the film is to drink in master cinematographer William H. Daniels' camerawork, whether it's a shot of a dank alley at twilight or a group of kids enjoying ice cream on a street corner. The influence of Weegee is enormous in all of the location photography (the scenes set in the police station have a soundstage feel that's at distinct odds with the rest of the picture), and the casting of small roles was done with an eye toward creating an authentic slice of New York life. Fitzgerald, who made a career of playing the same twinkly eyed Irishman in over 40 films, is a tad over-the-top at times, and Taylor, our ticket into the city's underbelly, is blandly flat. But then the performances really are a secondary consideration in this picture, which offers a feast of simply breathtaking camerawork and a dead-perfect score by Miklos Rosza. For fans of noir and crime drama, The Naked City is a seminal work that's not to be missed.
The Criterion Collection once again does itself proud with a magnificent full-frame (1.33:1) transfer of the film. The contrast is crisp, the blacks deep and rich, and the picture is jaw-droppingly clean. The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is equally good, extremely clean with no noticeable hiss. Extras include a very good, informative audio commentary recorded in 1995 by screenwriter Malvin Wald; a video critique of the film by NYU film professor Dana Polan (28 min.); a video interview with architect/writer James Sanders on the look of postwar New York (25 min.); a video of a 2004 appearance in Los Angeles by 93-year old Jules Dassin at a screening of Rififi (40 min.), and a stills gallery. The package includes a 13-page booklet featuring an essay on the film by Luc Sante and a letter from Hellinger who died of a heart attack right after the movie's first preview to Dassin, about the final chase sequence. Keep-case.