Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Don Taylor
Director: Jules Dassin
The granddaddy of the modern police procedural, Jules Dassin’s 1948 movie took its title from a book by Weegee, the great New York crime photographer, and it aspired to a similar kind of documentary truthfulness. It was shot entirely on location in the Big Apple – one of the first Hollywood productions to venture out of California – and the story (based on the murder of showgirl Dot King, which had already been adapted for the screen in The King Murder in 1932) punctures the myth of the lone detective and demonstrates that crimes are solved by the hard work of dedicated teams.
The very fact that the film spawned so many other shows and movies makes it automatically seem… not dated exactly, but like an archaeological artefact that you glimpse through a crust of layers. Yet that’s also what makes it so uncanny. All the ingredients of a beloved formula are here: the banter and camaraderie at the shabby precinct station; the pairing of an old wise detective with an inexperienced up and comer; the grieving parents going to the morgue to identify the body; the glimpses of the detectives’ home lives where they struggle with the normal problems that effect us all; you even get bits of whimsical add-on business which have become part and parcel of the genre, such as crackpots coming out of the woodwork to confess to the crime or to offer to solve it with their psychic powers. It’s old and new at the same time, and it only adds to the charm when a voiceover narrator jumps in to explain what’s happening every two seconds just in case you’re finding the whole thing far too novel.
Throughout, the tone is very un-noir, light and relaxed, downplaying the melodrama and relying on engaging characters and the fascination of the process to keep the audience hooked. Central to this is the performance by Barry Fitzgerald as the waggish but deadly sharp Lieutenant Dan Muldoon. Fitzgerald was a John Ford regular, playing comical Irishmen in movies such as The Quiet Man, but given a rare lead role he dominates with an easy charm ideally suited for tripping up lying witnesses or hypnotizing culprits into spilling their guts.
Aside from Fitzgerald, the other star of the show is William H. Daniels’ location cinematography. The interiors look a little grainy (and just occasionally scratchy) on this HD transfer, but the exteriors of the bustling metropolis positively simmer with summer heat. When the police first turn up at the scene of the crime, your eye goes to the crisp patterns on the frocks of the female rubberneckers loitering outside. And the conclusion high up on the Williamsburg Bridge is spectacular, with its interplay of shadowy iron girders and glimpses of Manhattan, a tantalizing fairyland in the distance.
As for the extras, there’s plenty to investigate. A 39-minute piece with Amy Taubin combines personal reminiscence and history lesson as the critic looks at New York on screen, going back to the silent era but also taking in the underground movie scene and Martin Scoscese (although, as she wryly points out, Mean Streets was shot mainly in LA). A 52-minute video of Jules Dassin being interviewed on stage in 2004 suffers from crackly lo-fi sound but is well worth persevering with as it’s a very jolly affair, with the elderly director in good form and telling some funny jokes. Also not to be overlooked is a 15-minute piece dating from 1950 about the “Hollywood Ten” blacklisted by HUAC, which contains some interesting background footage on the individuals involved (including Albert Malz, who co-scripted The Naked City).
Most interesting of all, though, is the informative and authoritative audio commentary by screenwriter Malvin Wald, who spent six months penning the original treatment for the film and doing research into police methods. He explains how he was taken off the picture when Jules Dassin came on board and brought in his own team to work on it (he speaks in generous terms of Maltz’s contribution). He mentions the influence of John Dos Passos’ epic novel USA on the movie’s portrait of New York at different times of the day and night, reveals that Fitzgerald was initially reluctant to take on the role of Muldoon, and we also learn that the producer Mark Hellinger, who does voiceover duties on the film (“There are eight million stories in the naked city!)”), had been a newspaperman at the time of the Dot King murder and actually attended the crime scene.