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The Criterion Collection presents
"There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."
DVD ReviewYou could draw a pretty fair diagram of the evolution of postwar filmed storytelling using The Naked City as the hub of the wheel—you can see the obvious influences in it of Neorealism, of documentary filmmaking, and of noir, and its down-and-dirty style make it the vital influence on decades' worth of cop movies, television shows and multiplot stories of every stripe. There are certainly museum piece aspects to the movie, but it still crackles, and it's an extraordinary document in a lot of ways, both for its storytelling strategies and for its footage of New York City street life just after World War II.
Noir master Jules Dassin directs, and the keen eye he brought to pictures like Rififi and Night and the City are very much on display here once again. Famed theatrical impresario Mark Hellinger was the film's producer, and also serves as its narrator; and right away his initial voice-over alerts us to the film's conceit—it's all shot on location, in an effort to capture the pulse of the greatest city in the world on celluloid. (Even Hellinger's voice over was incredibly influential, and his last line, quoted above, is probably the movie's signature moment.) Dassin pretty quickly establishes his Neorealist street cred, and the opening, an aerial shot of southern Manhattan, is especially notable and relevant, for obviously the film was made decades before the construction of the Twin Towers—for grisly reasons, things downtown don't look so different today. But we're unquestionably in the New York of a different era, a time when men all wore neckties, where kids skipped rope at every street corner, and where an economic and ethnic heterogeneity prevailed. This is Jane Jacobs' New York of neighborhoods, one in which rent was reasonable, everybody knew their neighbors, and Starbuck was only a steward in a Herman Melville novel.
But there's a story to go along with, and as you might anticipate from a noir, it's a reasonably brutal one. Pretty Jean Dexter has been discovered dead, chloroformed and choked and drowned in the bathtub, a kind of (ahem) overkill suggesting that the perpetrators meant business. On the case is an archetypical pair—Barry Fitzgerald portrays Lieutenant Daniel Muldoon of the 10th Precinct, a wizened old cop with the map of Ireland on his face whose eyes have seen it all before; and Don Taylor is Jimmy Halloran, the new guy on the Homicide Squad. At times, certainly, it feels like the case itself is just a useful pretext to make a sort of hardbitten travelogue, and Dassin is happy to take time out even from this great panorama for odd little bits of quirky personal behavior. At one point, for instance, Halloran is late for work because his lovely wife is actively encouraging her husband to administer a good beating to their son, for crossing the street by himself.
So even if it's a bit of a shaggy dog story, there's still a murder to be solved, and Dassin treats us to a crackerjack climactic chase, taking great advantage of the unmistakable silhouette of the Williamsburg Bridge. Fitzgerald is the leading man, and he's fine, even if it may feel like you've seen this performance before; Howard Duff is especially compelling as sweaty Frank Niles, a congenital liar who seems unable to keep up with his own fabrications. There's a fair amount of melodrama, all of it punched up by a swelling, over-the-top score, but there's a love of New York and of moviemaking at the heart of it all, and it's a great slice of street life from a time before we all started ignoring one another and watching television.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Cinematographer William Daniels may be the true unsung hero of The Naked City, and his work looks terrifically sharp here—Image released this title on DVD in 1999, but this Criterion transfer is far superior in every respect. Resolution is stronger, scratches are fewer, and blacks are deeper.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Even after Criterion's restorative work, there are some audio problems here, due perhaps to the constraints of all the location shooting. There are many muffled and garbled scenes, and some of the dialogue is close to incomprehensible, which is a shame especially with a script filled with bon bons like "Now she's the marmalade on ten thousand pieces of toast."
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by screenwriter Malvin Wald
A couple of likely candidates are in fact interviewed here. NYU film professor Dana Polan (28m:08s) discusses the feature in terms of genre conventions, for both film noir and the police procedural—it's a movie more about fighting crime than crime, and Polan is particularly interesting discussing postwar America and the anxiety of the company man, assuaged in part by can-do stories like this one. James Sanders, author of Celluloid Skyline, goes over (26m:04s) the challenges of shooting in New York, how all the boroughs of the city are represented here, and the obvious Neorealist influence on Dassin. And a Q & A (40m:41s) with the director himself, shot after a 2004 screening of Rififi at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is a wonderful career retrospective, going over the blacklist and Dassin's life as an expatriate. Criterion cops to the compromised technical quality of this piece, but the content alone justifies its inclusion. And the accompanying booklet features an essay on NY lowlife expert Luc Sante, and a ferociously energetic memo from Wald to Dassin, concerning the film's final chase sequence.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsThe Naked City has been so influential that it doesn't seem like the cherry bomb it was back in the day, but it's still a terrific rough-and-tumble noiry look at the mean streets of New York circa 1948. The voluminous extras situate its influence in both urban and film history, and it looks mighty sharp on this DVD.
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