From modern programs like Lucifer, The Flash, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Blue Bloods to more classic ones like Law and Order, The Mod Squad, and Hill Street Blues, each of these procedural variants owe their existence in large part to the 1948 film noir The Naked City. Though there have been serials in radio and comics well before the release of The Naked City, the style, substance, and subtextual messaging presenting law enforcement as inherently good within the film became the birthing place for what we know as the common police procedural today. Even programs like From the Files of Police Squad, a screwball comedy, and Get Smart, a spy comedy, can trace their essence back to one of cinema history’s greatest noir storytellers, Jules Dassin, and his film exploring a gruesome murder in New York City. While the premise itself isn’t revolutionary today, The Naked City, developed by Malvin Wald (Jungle Jim) and co-screenplay writer Albert Maltz, was an absolute marvel when it premiered. It not only possesses the hopelessness noirs are known for, but it blends that despondency with a persistent optimism and effervescence which would become the backbone of modern procedurals. In addition, The Naked City would discard the usual back lots and soundstages of Hollywood and shoot entirely within the streets of New York City itself, something which few films had done in totality before. With its addition to the Criterion Collection, audiences can experience two-time Oscar winner The Naked City like never before thanks to the diligent restoration process that took two years and a great deal of puzzle work to complete.
In the middle of the night, while the majority of New York City sleeps, ex-model Jean Dexter dies in her apartment and is found the next morning by her housekeeper. Homicide detective Lt. Dean Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and his partner, Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), are called in to solve the case. In searching every inch of her apartment, interviewing suspects, and walking the streets of New York, a simple suicide by drowning is quickly revealed to be the tip of a larger series of crimes, a series of crimes that could happen to anyone, anywhere, at almost any time.
It’s not just the general premise of The Naked City which would become the basis for procedurals, but the entire style of the film would serve as the blueprint. Opening with a prolonged narration from producer Mark Hellinger, a voice which would frequently jump in and out of the story from time to time, the audience is clued in that within the vastness of New York City are regular people like you and me. Dick Wolf’s stories, in particular, would open with their own unique narration setting up the each individual program’s general concept in addition to the auditory cues he’s made famous. Whereas the modern versions establish the heroes at the top of each episode, the narration within The Naked City serves to establish how NYC is not all starlets and stock brokers, but average people just trying to pay their way. In order to make it feel so intimate, Dassin embraces the style of contemporary Italian neorealists like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, resulting in a film which feels less like a staged film and more like a documentary by using real locations and real citizens of NYC amid the actors’ performances. With the city entire as the backdrop, The Naked City transforms from traditional crime drama into something more alive and unpredictable.
Perhaps that’s why Muldoon and Halloran appear more accessible and engaging. It’s not just that their respective performances ground the film, it’s that they don’t come across as performances but as organic reactions to what occurs around them. Muldoon, in particular, is mostly comprised of sharp observations and quick wits, so that when he says lines like, “Lovely young girl. Lovely long legs. Keep looking at them,” to a fellow cop, it’s a reading received by the audience as less lecherous and more off-the-cuff humorous. Why? It’s Muldoon’s casual way of instructing the other officer to follow the suspect. Without the performances behind it, the line could certainly read as tawdry, but with Fitzgerald as Muldoon in the moment, it’s a slick move that elicits a laugh. Similarly, there’s a brief sequence with Taylor at home in suburbia wherein his Halloran argues with his wife, played by Anne Sargent in her cinematic debut, about how to discipline their son. She wants Halloran to deliver a brutal spanking and he’s as reluctant as she to do it. This sequence is unnecessary to the core narrative, yet it’s compelling due to the soft sweetness of both performers and the opportunity it provides for the audience to get to know Halloran more personally. This, of course, is common for procedurals of today, but in its original release, its use in The Naked City was considered a revelation.
Since its original theatrical release, The Naked City has undergone an adventure all its own, much like fellow Dassin Criterion release Brute Force, as the original 35mm film is, essentially, lost. In order to create this restoration, TLEFilms Film Restoration & Preservation Services, Germany location, spent two years pouring over 13 elements that were selected and used to create the version of the film home viewers experience within this release. Considering the fact that the film underwent a variety of edits as the film switched distributors, it’s hard to say if what Criterion offers is frame-for-frame the same as what was exhibited in 1948, however, it is as close to what was intended as possible. In addition to the restored images, the score composed by Miklós Rózsa and Frank Skinner underwent restoration to the point that Criterion proclaims, “it now can be heard in full clarity for the first time since 1948.” It’s a bold claim, but one which seems justified as the sound coming from my surround sound system was certainly pristine. Do keep in mind, when deciding which version of the home release to acquire, that the improved sound is only included with the Blu-ray release, not the DVD. Along with the picture and sound improvements, The Naked City comes with three supplemental videos: an interview with film scholar Dana Polan, an interview with author James Sanders, and a 2004 recorded Q&A with Dassin from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Polan and Sanders examine the film from a cinematic and a historical architecture perspective, respectively, so that will entice viewers who want a deeper dive into the production. For fans of Dassin’s films, the Q&A is difficult to recommend at all due to the poor audio quality. This is, of course, noted in the on-screen description before playing, so hat-tip to Criterion for making sure it’s identified. As much as you’ll want to listen to Dassin discuss his catalogue, it is, admittedly, difficult to engage with and, sadly, was not finished out of frustration from the inaudibility.
When looking backward at The Naked City, what’s particularly fascinating is the combination of tones which make up the film. In one of three supplemental materials, film scholar Dana Polan explains that The Naked City contains all the hopelessness and brutally expected of a noir, yet, by being mashed up with the perpetual optimism of Muldoon and Halloran, a bridge is created that leaves behind the noirs of the 1940s and moves onto something more hopeful. There are certainly plenty more noirs to come since The Naked City, but there is a distinct change taking place, the effects of which are still being felt now. At the end of the film, there’s a card denoting thanks to the NYPD for their partnership in getting the film made. With films like Michael Bay’s Transformers series and Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, there’s an expected connection between making the films and local law enforcement support. This was less common before The Naked City as the majority of films were not on location. Additionally, as much as The Naked City presents the citizens of NYC as average, it works all the harder to present Muldoon, Halloran, and the rest of their servicemen as average as well. In the words of Polan, they are cogs in a machine, but they are happy to be working in that machine. Decades later, the average citizen views law enforcement more favorably due to their persistent depictions as regular folks who work night and day to solve crimes. This particular aspect hits differently in light of recent protests against police brutality and in support of reducing funding for local law enforcement as a deterrent for legislative overreach. Maltz and Wald created a story that not only implies the terrible nature of man, but also the need for virtuous watchmen. In this way, The Naked City is a fantastic, uplifting tale. But in light of decades’ worth of belief that law enforcement is always right when there is clear evidence to the contrary, perhaps there’s more darkness in the truth than there ever was in fiction.
The Naked City Special Features
- On the Blu-ray: New 4K digital restoration by TLEFilms FIlm Restoration & Preservation Services, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- On the DVD: Restored high-definition digital transfer
- Audio commentary from 1996 featuring screenwriter Malvin Wald
- Interview from 2006 with film scholar Dana Polan
- Interview from 2006 with author James Sanders (Celluloid Skyline) on the film’s New York locations
- Footage of director Jules Dassin from a 2004 appearance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
- Stills gallery
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by author and critic Luc Sante and production notes from producer Mark Hellinger to Dassin
Available on Blu-ray and DVD September 8th, 2020.
For more information on The Naked City, head to the official Criterion Collection website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.