Jules Dassin (Night and the City, Rififi) has the odd distinction of being a director best known for films that were atypical of his particular aesthetic, which tended toward dramatic showmanship rather than gritty realism. While most of his films fall into the noir category, they are all surprisingly different in their approach. The Naked City was an early success for Dassin and predated his blacklisting and subsequent career in Europe. Like post-blacklist noir Night and the City, The Naked City is set in a vibrant city that becomes very much a character within the film, yet instead of London, the city is New York. What makes this film stand out, however, is the influence of Italian neorealism. In this overtly realist vein, the workaday world of New York becomes a literal asphalt jungle whose corrupt and restless nature is apparent in each shot. Presented as a quasi-documentary complete with a narrator and extensive on-location shooting, The Naked City was unlike anything a Hollywood studio had made before.
The plot of The Naked City is very much that of a police procedural. Following the discovery of the dead model, Jean Dexter, by her housekeeper, homicide detective Lt. Daniel Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and detective James Halloran (Don Taylor) begin their investigation into her murder by interviewing the housekeeper at the crime scene. They find a pair of men’s pajamas and are told that Dexter was involved with a mysterious man known only as “Mr. Henderson” and had previously dated Frank Niles (Howard Duff). A large amount of jewelry is discovered missing from a locked drawer in Dexter’s bedroom, and a bottle of sleeping pills leads them to the psychiatrist Dr. Stoneman who unfortunately has no information. It isn’t until Ruth Morrison, a model who had worked with Dexter, says that she is engaged to Niles that any headway is made in the investigation. During his questioning, Niles blatantly lies more than once and later foolishly pawns a gold cigarette case and purchases a one-way ticket to Mexico. To solve their case, Muldoon and Halloran just have to pry the truth out of the shifty Niles.
The most striking aspect of The Naked City is its use of voiceover narration. Typically, one would expect a narrator to be either a completely omniscient, unidentified voice or the voice of a reminiscing character in the film itself. The narrator in The Naked City is neither. As shots of the New York skyline establish setting at the beginning of the film, the narrator identifies himself as Mark Hellinger, the film’s producer. This fact alone makes the film unique, but Hellinger goes further, declaring The Naked City a quasi-documentary. He dispenses with the need for credits, instead reading aloud the names of production staff and the actors who “played out their roles in the streets, in the apartment houses, in the skyscrapers of New York itself” amidst thousands of real New Yorkers. It is abundantly clear that the film is a staged “documentary,” which, in its commitment to using the real city and its real citizens, becomes a candid representation of real life circa 1948.
Although it is most certainly noir, The Naked City’s biggest influence was a film movement that similarly focused on the impact of WWII on national psyches and the largely overlooked everyday problems of poverty and desperation: neorealism. By necessity, films such as Rome, Open City and The Bicycle Thief were shot on location on real city streets with real people, not actors. The Naked City adapts these formalistic aspects to the Hollywood system and the city of New York. Hellinger’s newsreel narration is certainly a regression from the neorealist ideal, but it serves as Hollywood’s entrance into this style of urban realism. The main characters are professional actors, but the people they inhabit the screen with are everyday citizens. And when shooting outdoor scenes, the bustle of New York streets was never simulated on a sound stage. Rumor has it that Dassin chose to hide the cameras inside vans and shoot through their tinted windows. This ingenious move, if true, would mean that any bystanders wouldn’t have even known they were taking part in a movie, and that lends all the more realism to this vision of New York. It is the sheer normalcy of unscripted scenes where women window shop and children frolic around a broken fire hydrant that make this New York come alive on screen, and despite the commonality of such sights, their appearance on film – on the big screen – affirmed their reality.
Beyond the realistic presentation of everyday life in the streets of New York, The Naked City is less a whodunit and more a character study into the murdered model, Jean Dexter. We know from the very first scene that while life went on as normal for so many people in the city, Dexter was being murdered by two men in her apartment, and after that murder, we witness one killer bludgeon his accomplice and throw him into the East River. There is hardly any mystery to that part of the story, but Dexter’s past is another matter. Through Niles and Dr. Stoneman, it is revealed that she orchestrated jewelry burglaries of the homes of Stoneman’s frequent party guests with the help of Niles and employed the men who ultimately killed her to actually steal the jewels. Although her past is not explored as much as it could be – or would have been in a more typical, melodramatic Hollywood noir – we discover that she was, like so many others, enticed by the myth of New York to escape her past and reinvent herself. Her new life is an illusion on a grand scale, especially her naïve dream of being a model. Her untimely downfall is the true cynicism of noir shining through.
The Naked City was by no means a success at the time, but its formalism proved to be its most lasting contribution. A TV series of the same name picked up on the film’s emphasis on the infinite storylines played out in the city and used the tagline “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them” at the end of each episode. As for the film’s production, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Hellinger held more sway over the style of the film than director Jules Dassin, and it’s safe to say that his incessant narration probably hindered Dassin’s vision of a gritty and, above all, real New York. Yet the Hitchcockian final chase scene – the tensest moment in the film – has Dassin’s flair written all over it. Whereas other films in that era wouldn’t dream of such realism, melodrama and romance never seep into this murder mystery. Overall, the film remains an audacious attempt to try something new.