The act of watching Jules Dassin's 1948 film noir classic, The Naked City, is like film noir itself: The more you watch, the more layers reveal themselves to the point where you realize the more you know the more you want to know. It was an incalculably influential movie that inspired an offshoot of film noir – the police procedural genre – that had an impact on everything from Call Northside 777 to Panic in the Streets. But it wasn't just because of the celebration of the crime-investigation process, but also thanks to the remarkable cinematography that contrasted against, at first glace, rather perfunctory storytelling devices.
As with all things noir, nothing is as it seems, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Naked City. But there are no unseen forces, no subservience to notions of fate or fatalism, no femmes fatale, no pistol-packing private eyes.
As Oscar-nominated co-screenwriter Malvin Wald notes in the commentary to the Criterion Collection's DVD release, The Naked City is the spiritual godfather of so many countless TV crime dramas as well, starting with the TV series version of the movie, continuing on with "Dragnet" and pretty much any Quinn Martin Production all the way through "Miami Vice" and "NYPD Blue" to the "Law & Order" and "CSI" franchises. But where these aggressively examine and often romanticize the process with their crashing soundtracks, dig-me camera angles and saturated colors, Dassin's film seems comfortable plodding along with the cops on the beat and behind the desk, doggedly and often boringly pursuing their leads. You barely even get to enjoy the murder.
The plot to The Naked City isn't nearly as important as virtually everything surrounding it, as the police (led by bemused detective Dan Muldoon, portrayed by crusty Irish charmer Barry Fitzgerald) attempt to solve the murder of an attractive young model. We only see her, it should be noted, in a photo in her bedroom after it becomes a crime scene.
"So, in a sense, this film begins where film noir ends," film noir expert Dana Polan says in another of Criterion's delightful extras. "There's a noir story, but it's almost as if the noir story has already transpired, and it's given way to this other story, which is the patient plotting, often repetitive work of the law enforcement figures, and that's very typical of the police procedural."
Dassin, working with producer Mark Hallinger, screenwriters Malvin Wald and Albert Maltz, and cinematographer William Daniels, found his poetry in the most subtle ways. Hallinger's unprecedented voice-over narration – producers had never done this before – is as Polan puts it a wandering narration, assuming characters' thoughts and lives while also moving the listener along with the story. For it is New York City itself that, like New Orleans in Panic in the Streets, becomes the star of The Naked City. It is no small coincidence that Dassin, like Elia Kazan, collided with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era – both were accused of being communists. (Co-screenwriter Albert Maltz also was one of the Hollywood 10 accused of communist ties.) Dassin sought exile in France and Kazan cooperated with the committee. Both were fans of the Italian neorealism school of location filmmaking, and both believed in the function of the everyday worker – the common man. "There are 8 million stories in the naked city," Hallinger, a former newspaperman, proclaims at the end of the movie as a street cleaner finishes his job. "This has been one of them."
And so Dassin finds his beauty wherever he sees it, whether it's the famous New York skyline in classic fashion or the people down below. There is a shot of a construction site atop a high-rise featuring one of the murder suspects, framed by two skyscrapers. But just as majestically, Dassin frames two working girls admiring a gown in a storefront window, admiring a working class often prone to aspirational living.
The Criterion Collection's digitally remastered DVD release features not only the Wald commentary and Polan interview but also a 2004 public appearance by Dassin (now 95), a critique of the New York locations by Celluloid Skyline author James Sanders, and a new essay by critic Luc Sante. The Naked City was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning for Daniels' black-and-white cinematography and Paul Weatherwax's crisp editing. They were fitting wins, for it is their deft work, whether in storytelling or showing, that makes The Naked City such a subtle treasure.