Thursday, February 8, 2024

The Naked City (1948)

I have seen The Naked City more than once, and I am glad I did because I enjoyed it immensely, and I now have a new appreciation for it. How did I miss the little bits of humor interspersed here and there in an otherwise grim story? Was I so engrossed in the narrative (maybe not such a bad thing) that I forgot to notice the spectacular location shots? Sometimes a film has to be given a second chance; it has to be seen two or even three times to appreciate all the details. The Naked City is a good example.

I shouldn’t be too hard on myself about missing anything because the story in The Naked City moves quickly. A young model has been murdered in her apartment, and her story is intertwined with several others, making for a complicated narrative with many threads. The city is the backdrop for the murder investigation, the main detectives’ investigation and personal lives, the suspects and friends who are interviewed—even one of the murderers himself, who is not a cardboard villain. Throughout it all, the narrative keeps viewers aligned most closely with the police detectives as they conduct their investigation.

The screenwriter, Malvin Wald, based his script on his research at the New City Police Department (NYPD). Many of the narrative’s details are taken from actual cases. Wald provides audio commentary for the film, and part of his discussion is devoted to what he gleaned from his research and applied to the script. It gives the film a semidocumentary style that is reinforced by a voice-over narrator, who is producer Mark Hellinger.

Hellinger introduces the film, the on-location shooting, the city as is. He tells viewers during the opening sequence that it’s a hot summer night when the murder of a female model, Jean Dexter, takes place. Her murder is only one shot in the opening sequence. Some places in the city are empty; others are just filling up. Some people, for example, newspaper reporters, cleaning people, and disc jockeys, are working their night shifts. When day breaks, people go about their many morning routines. Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon and Detective Jimmy Halloran are included in this group starting their respective days, and viewers learn their identities later. One of Dexter’s killers regrets the murder and gets drunk to drown his sorrows. The second killer, afraid that his partner cannot be trusted, smashes his head and throws him into the East River.

The housekeeper, Martha Swenson, finds Jean Dexter’s body. The crime is reported to the Tenth Precinct in the Chelsea district of New York City. The Homicide Department is on the third floor. (All of this is also based on fact.) Detectives Muldoon and Halloran are assigned to the case, and so the investigation begins. Jean Dexter’s apartment is combed for clues, and the detectives find plenty: An expensive pair of men’s pajamas in the laundry hamper, a black-star sapphire ring, a bottle of prescription sleeping pills under the bed, missing jewelry. The housekeeper tells detectives during her interview with them that the ring was a gift from Dexter’s brother (the detectives learn from Dexter’s parents that they never had any other children). It isn’t long before the detectives begin learning all they can about Dexter and her life in the city.

(This article about The Naked City contains spoilers.)

Doctor Lawrence Stoneman prescribed the sleeping pills found in Dexter’s bedroom, and Detective Halloran questions him about how well he knew his patient. Frank Niles is another male visitor of Jane Dexter’s; both he and Stoneman complicate the investigation by withholding vital information. But the police are not stymied. They head to Dexter’s place of employment: a dress shop where she modeled. She was fired from this modeling job because married men were always expressing interest in her. Their wives didn’t like it and neither did her employer, a woman interviewed by Detective Halloran. He also meets Ruth Morrison, another model who worked with Dexter at the dress shop. When Halloran learns that they were friends, he brings her to the police station for the beginning of the unraveling of Frank Niles’s lies. Morrison thinks that she and Niles are engaged to be married, but Niles had earlier told Detective Muldoon that he didn’t know Ruth Morrison.

Niles is eventually released by the police, but he is tailed by detectives in the hopes of learning more about his connections to Dexter. He pawns a stolen cigarette case, which provides the detectives with the first of a series of clues about Dexter, Niles, and a ring of jewelry thieves. The black-star sapphire ring and Ruth Morrison’s engagement ring, it turns out, are also stolen property.

Detective Muldoon, Detective Halloran, and Ruth Morrison go to Frank Niles’s apartment to question him about his being in possession of stolen goods. They find him hurt and unconscious on his living room floor, with the assailant escaping on the fire escape. Halloran runs after the assailant but loses him on the elevated subway. Detective Muldoon revives Niles, who claims that the jewelry, including Morrison’s engagement ring, were presents from Jean Dexter. He protests his innocence, but he is arrested for Dexter’s murder anyway.

This scene is an example of the subtle humor I missed on first viewing. Detective Muldoon tries to revive Niles by slapping his cheeks. He suggests to Ruth Morrison that she prepare some cold tea to help Niles’s recovery. Muldoon makes sure that Morrison is in the kitchen and that she isn’t looking before he gives Niles one hard slap, which finally gets Niles moaning. When Morrison returns to the living room, she is frantic about Niles and stroking his face. Muldoon points out that the cold tea would work better.

In his audio commentary, Marvin Wald also talks about the humor in the film. He says that the choice of Barry Fitzgerald in the role of Detective Muldoon gives the film depth, character, and humor. Barry Fitzgerald’s reaction in many scenes, but especially with Mrs. Hylton and with the woman who shows up at the police station because she wants to help the murder investigation, are the work of a master actor. Another example of the humor in the film occurs toward the end, when Detective Jimmy Halloran goes to a luncheonette in the East Side to try to find Willie Garzah. The woman running the luncheonette provides some humor when she recognizes the photo of Garzah but then worries about getting someone else in trouble. She asks Detective Halloran if he is a debt collector.

Wald discusses his research in his audio commentary. He based many of the incidents in the film on several different cases from NYPD files. The following list includes just a few bits of information that Wald offered:

Through his research in 1946, Wald learned that many murder investigations remain unsolved. He was given access to police files for solved and unsolved cases by NYPD Inspector Joseph Donovan, who was the basis for the character of Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon.

One of the cases that Wald researched was the murder of a famous model Dorothy (Dot) King, which was never solved. In the police case files was a tip about a high-society admirer from Philadelphia. Wald felt that influence prevailed to stop the investigation. But The Naked City shows the results of Wald’s research.

Detective work is mostly drudgery. It is not glamorous, as it was shown previously in films. Police officers are hard-working civil servants.

Wald also learned from his research that newspaper headline cases always attract nuts and fruitcakes, as he says, who think that they know who the murderer is. In the film, for instance, a woman shows up at the homicide bureau to tell Detective Muldoon that she can help him find the murderer. Headline cases also attract people who want to confess and take credit, so to speak. Later in the film, the police capture a man who breaks into Dexter’s apartment and states that he stabbed her to death. The police know he is not the killer because Dexter was chloroformed and drowned in her bathtub. The introduction of these characters adds some humor to the story.

Police told Wald that the suspect (in the film, Willie Garzah) probably wouldn’t leave the city because he could hide in a crowd. If he left for a small town, he would be a stranger, and the police would take notice.

Doctor Lawrence Stoneman (Dexter’s physician and lover) would have parties, and his guest’s homes would be burglarized while they were his guests. This was also based on a real story: Wald knew a Hollywood producer whose servants pulled the same scam as Jean Dexter and her fiancé Frank Niles.

Class differences between the wealthy and the working detectives are mentioned from time to time throughout the film. For example, Detective Muldoon comments on the fact that Frank Niles spent fifty dollars in one evening. Fifty dollars was a working man’s wages and a family could live on that much. These references to the police as working people worried producers at Universal because they felt that such references were too political.

The Naked City was revolutionary for its time: Although used before, now the documentary technique was applied to a whole city, and until now, murder mysteries were solved by private individuals, not by the police. In The Naked City, the police are shown as competent.

The final sequence, with Willie Garzah on the run and pursued by police officers and detectives, is spectacular. Garzah heads toward the Williamsburg Bridge, and his ascent on the metal staircases is tense. Viewers see what Garzah sees: Tennis players on courts far below, the city skyline from different levels on the bridge, the police staring up at him with their guns drawn. Each shot is meant to add to the tension and excitement of the chase.

I did find myself wondering why Garzah didn’t dive into the East River to get away from the police. He is described previously in the film by various witnesses as an acrobat, a wrestler, a boxer. When Detective Halloran finds Garzah in his apartment, Garzah is exercising, and he tells Halloran that he exercises regularly, doesn’t drink, and doesn’t smoke. Maybe the production code at the time wouldn’t have allowed Garzah to escape: Criminals were not allowed to get away without punishment after all. (But the police could have caught him in the river, right?)

The voice-over narrator is intrusive by today’s standards. But in the case of The Naked City, he definitely adds to the semidocumentary style. He also delivers what would become the most famous line from the film: “There are 8 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” The late 1950s/1960s television series Naked City was based on the film, and each episode ends with this famous line.

New York City is shot in all its postwar midcentury splendor in The Naked City. Each part of the city seems like its own little neighborhood, with pedestrians bustling in every direction. Cars hadn’t taken over the city’s streets and the American way of life just yet, but things changed pretty quickly after the film’s release. There is even a sequence in which Mrs. Halloran tells her husband when he comes home that their young son crossed a busy road by himself earlier in the day. She worries that he could be killed if he doesn’t obey her instructions about crossing busy streets by himself. The city may be a collection of tight-knit neighborhoods and watched over by dedicated civil servants, but there’s still danger for everyone living there.

March 4, 1948, release date    Directed by Jules Dassin    Screenplay by Albert Maltz, Malvin Wald    Based on a story by Malvin Wald    Music by Miklós Rózsa, Frank Skinner    Edited by Paul Weatherwax    Cinematography by William H. Daniels

Barry Fitzgerald as Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon    Howard Duff as Frank Niles    Dorothy Hart as Ruth Morrison    Don Taylor as Detective Jimmy Halloran    Frank Conroy as Captain Donahue    Ted de Corsia as Willie Garzah    House Jameson as Dr. Lawrence Stoneman    Anne Sargent as Mrs. Halloran    Adelaide Klein as Paula Batory    Grover Burgess as Mr. Batory    Tom Pedi as Detective Perelli    John McQuade as Detective Dace Constantino    Enid Markey as Mrs. Hylton    Walter Burke as Pete Backalis    Virginia Mullen as Martha Swenson    Arthur O’Connell as Sergeant Shaeffer    Joe Kerr as Ned Harvey    Mark Hellinger as the narrator

Distributed by Universal-International Pictures    Produced by Mark Hellinger Productions

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