Category: Archive

The reel thing

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Muldoon, played by Barry Fitzgerald, was the central character in a noirish thriller that may be best remembered for its final lines, later popularized further by the TV series it inspired: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”
But “The Naked City,” which opened in movie theaters 60 years ago this month, is notable for several other reasons. For one, it marked the transition from the era in which the private sleuth was dominant — whether Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade or Miss Marple — to one in which the professional cop held sway. The film is considered the first police procedural and also the first cop-buddy film. In “The Naked City,” the policeman was portrayed as an ordinary workingman, a civil servant with a family and a private life — a view that, at a time when the Red Scare was brewing, was seen as “too political” and communist-inspired by a nervous studio, Universal International.
And “The Naked City” pioneered the semi-documentary. Sound technology had gotten to the point where it was possible to shoot an entire film in busy streets. Now the movie industry, having all but decamped to California 20 years earlier, returned to New York with a vengeance. “The Naked City” was shot at 107 locations in the Big Apple, including famously on the Williamsburg Bridge, the site of its climactic chase.
Fitzgerald, who won an Oscar playing Father Fitzgibbon in “Going My Way” in 1945, had worried that the part would involve a lot of “running and shooting.” The 59-year-old actor was informed, however, that younger men, such as Don Taylor, playing his sidekick Detective Jimmy Halloran, would do the more physical stuff – and indeed the latter was to jump subway turnstiles and run down fire escapes in pursuit of the bad guys.
“Well then, you just hired yourself an old Irish actor,” a reassured Fitzgerald told the producers. He was, nonetheless, an unlikely choice to play a New York City cop, despite his ethnic background. The former Abbey player – who often looked as he’d been beamed up from the corner snug of a Dublin pub – never seemed quite so out of place. And yet, in the view of co-screenwriter Marvin Wald, he “lit up the screen.”
Dan Muldoon was based on a real-life NYPD officer, Insp. Joseph Donovan, whom Wald had met researching the project. The screenwriter said that because of their shared Brooklyn roots, the cop arranged unprecedented access to police headquarters, the city morgue and the police academy, where homicide officers were doing a refresher course on the most up-to-date methods. He spent an entire month just observing and taking notes.
His idea was to show that it took persistence and teamwork for a crime to get solved and that the process of detection wasn’t as glamorous as depicted in the private eye genre

Producer’s voiceover
Wald, who had done scores of films for the air force during the war, won the backing of newspaper columnist-turned-film producer Mark Hellinger for a semi-documentary movie. Hellinger tapped Jules Dassin to direct. Dassin in turn had one of his longtime collaborators, Albert Maltz, work with Wald on the script.
Maltz, a Communist Party member, was very soon to become one of the first batch of blacklisted people, collectively known as the Hollywood Ten. He was later fined and jailed. (Maltz was awarded an Oscar posthumously in 1997, after it was revealed that he was the actual screenwriter on the 1950 film “Broken Arrow.”)
One of the Hollywood Ten broke under pressure and denounced Dessin before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The director, who had been a communist briefly before World War II, went into exile and a successful career in Europe. Now 97, he lives in Greece.
Longevity wasn’t on the cards for Hellinger, however. He saw the movie once in preview, hearing his narration with its famous last lines, and died suddenly days later at age 44.
The studio bosses, who’d thought a producer’s voiceover was strange enough, now fretted that a dead producer’s voiceover would be unsettling for audiences. Indeed, according to Wald, Universal International didn’t find much to like in the movie. Only legal threats from Hellinger’s estate saved it from destruction. It was released on schedule, with the narration intact.
Though the studio did almost nothing to promote it, “The Naked City” was nominated for three Oscars, and won two, for cinematography and editing. The reception was more appreciative abroad. It Britain, it got a Bafta nomination for best film and the French hailed it as the first “police documentary.”
If “The Naked City” was innovative in several respects, there was nothing new about its “social awareness.” The distance between the lives of working people and the better off is an important theme. It seems, for instance, that the unfortunate Jean Dexter’s big mistake was to have abandoned her hardworking parents to pursue dreams of fame and wealth in the big city.
Lt. Muldoon at one point expresses amazement when he hears that luckless conman Frank Niles (played by Howard Duff) spent $50 the previous night out on the town. “On $50 a week, I supported a wife and raised two kids,” he says to his sidekick, Detective Halloran. In another scene, he says: “I’m just earning my salary, miss.”
The policeman, then, was a worker, but also was a civil servant and as such was the antithesis of individualistic private eye. Cops up to that point had often been shown as “backward or stupid,” according to Wald, leaving it to cool heroes like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade to solve the case.
The new realism now had cops as regular guys with families, in contrast to the exotic loner that was the private eye. Detective Halloran is married with a young son and rides to and from his home in Jackson Heights, Queens, on the 7 Train. If Halloran is thoroughly decent and brave, it doesn’t make him stand out from any other returned World War II veteran.
We first see Muldoon, a widower, preparing his breakfast. “Don’t forget your country or the ones you left behind,” he sings, “Write a letter now and then and send me all you can.” The song’s final line is: “Don’t forget you are an Irishman.”

Street as studio
This comes at the end of a sequence that tries to show that the city is not a faceless machine. We see and hear from a cleaner, a radio disc jockey and a newspaper typesetter, all working the night shift. Come dawn, milkmen, postal employees and train drivers have already begun their day.
Peter Duffy, author of the recent “The Killing of Major Denis Mahon,” said that this approach is what makes “The Naked City” different.
“One of the film’s explicit intentions is to use a crime story to reveal the truth about a particular time and place,” Duffy said. “I think of the scene on the 7 Train where average New Yorkers are shown reading tabloid stories about the crime and talking about it among themselves. The typical crime thriller would never waste time with such a scene, which, after all, does nothing to further the plot.?
Duffy added: “Martin Scorcese’s ‘The Departed,’ for example, is unconcerned with showing the viewer the folkways of the modern Bostonian. Yet ‘The Naked City’ is self-consciously devoted to offering up a multilayered portrait of the New York of the late 1940s.”
The author wanted to do something like this when he was writing his book, which is about a case in County Roscommon 100 years before “The Naked City” was shown in movie theaters. “Yes, I was interested in the murder of this notorious individual,” he said. “But I was more interested in what the murder could tell the reader about the Ireland of 1845-50.”
The film’s creators were influenced by the emerging neo-realist Italian cinema, which had little choice but to use the street as one big studio, the industry’s facilities having been destroyed during the war.
But there was another important, more local influence — the newspaper photography of Weegee, AKA Arthur Felig, who brought out a book of his work in 1945 called “The Naked City.” (The filmmakers’ other title idea was “Homicide.”)
The movie still resonates as an authentic account of New York in the post-war years, as Peter Duffy found out when he took his baby daughter to a small park on Columbia Street in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. There, a man in his 60s, who was minding his granddaughter, described to him the park and neighborhood he’d remembered from childhood.
“Do you want to know what it was like?” said the man whose family was part of the Puerto Rican influx into the old Jewish Lower East Side. “You have to watch this movie called ‘The Naked City.'”
Author James Saunders, in an interview for the Criterion Collection’s Special Edition DVD of “The Naked City,” notes that it depicted a vibrant street life that had existed in New York since the 1830s and was in the late 1940s on the point of extinction. In a just few years, he says, people would be inside looking at television.
The cop show, of course, became a staple of that new form of entertainment — beginning with dramas like L.A.-set “Dragnet” and “The Naked City” and even a sitcom, “Car 54 Where Are You?”, which was filmed mainly in the Bronx.
Back in 1948, the New York Times film reviewer noted the late Hellinger’s love affair with the city, but criticized his fascination with its seamier side.
The reviewer said: “There are countless more fascinating facets to this city than the work of cops with crime and countless more striking characters in it than genial detectives and mumbling crooks.”
Present day NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly might agree — he has never been a fan of cop shows or movies. Before the New York Times sat him down to watch “The Naked City” in 2007, he said: “”I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way for them,” he said.
He’d never seen “The Naked City” before, and his first problem with it was taking Barry Fitzgerald seriously without his priest’s collar. But Kelly, who was a 6-year-old when the movie was released and joined the NYPD 19 years later, praised its realistic portrayal of investigative methods.
When it was over, a surprised police commissioner gave his verdict: “It actually was a pretty good movie.”

The suggested retail price of the Criterion Collection’s Special Edition DVD of “The Naked City” is $39.95, but is available from www.criterion.com, at $31.95.

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