The Naked City (1948)

How’s this for a 1940’s crime movie poster?

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

That’s the last line in “The Naked City,” a 1948 precursor to the police procedural genre.

This is a neat little movie. It was filmed in a “semi-documentary” style one summer in New York. The filmmakers made frequent use of the teeming streets as a backdrop, typically filming from cameras hidden in newsstands or moving vans, with actual New Yorkers unaware they were supporting characters. Wherever possible, they made use of actual NYC buildings and landmarks.

“The Naked City” starts out with a twist. The film’s producer, Mark Hellinger, narrates the film, starting with narrating the opening credits. A bit odd.

The story is simple enough: a pretty yet troubled young model is murdered in her apartment. The case falls to Lieutenant Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and his flatfoots to be solved.

Keep in mind: this was 1948. There were no cellphones, no DNA data, no computers or fingerprint databases. There were just cops and a helluva lot of walking.

I was always fascinated by those old-fashioned switchboards, where somebody sat there wearing a headset, then plugged cables into the correct jacks to connect a call. One scene makes beautiful use of the switchboard. We see a plug go into a jack marked, say, “Emergency.” Then a plug go into a jack marked, “Lab.” Then another plug into a jack labeled, “Duty Nurse.” The final shot of this sequence is a plug going into the jack marked “Morgue.” This 15 or 20 second sequence says all we need to know about the young model’s fate.

Barry Fitzgerald’s Muldoon anchors the story, as the wizened old Irish cop, brogue and all (Fitzgerald was actually born and raised in Ireland, so it wasn’t a Lucky Charms sort of accent!). His number-one investigator is Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor).

The detectives follow false leads, and the rare legitimate lead. They start with nothing, then through hard work and skill, gradually tighten the noose, till they figure out who the bad guy is, and bring him to justice.

All I could think of while watching “The Naked City” was how much it reminded me of  “Law & Order.” This film was truly one of the first real police procedurals. Mark Hellinger was a writer before he became a producer. He knew some of the great mobsters of the day, and used his contacts with them as research for his stories.  In addition to producing “The Naked City”–and he was on hand most days, not producing from Majorca or anything–he provided this staccato narration. It was a device to eliminate unnecessary shooting. For example, rather than show a detective walking into and out of 5000 NYC jewelry stores, the narration would advise, “Ever wonder how many jewelry stores there are in New York? Well, Detective Whoever, you’re going to find out.” It was almost a novelty, really, but I can’t really recall any films where the narrator talks to the characters on-screen, so that only the audience can hear it. It’s not breaking the fourth wall, really, because the detective didn’t know. So, is it that the narration is the aluminum siding on the fourth wall? And the detective didn’t see…ye gods, this is why everyone in movies drank. Well, and everyone in the 1940’s, too, come to that.

What a great ending line, though: There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.

They were Mark Hellinger’s last words of narration. Sadly, he died before the film was released. Nobody at Universal knew how to promote something so bizarre, but there was a clause in Hellinger’s contract that the film had to be released. It was. It was a hit that won two Oscars.

I did see one thing that was a harbinger of “Law & Order” yet to come. In certain light, from certain angles, Jimmy Halloran kept looking–I swear–like Chris Noth. If only Lenny Briscoe had been around with a wisecrack, it would have been perfect.

I really enjoyed “The Naked City.” It won’t make any of my Top Ten lists. But after 208 minutes of (BRILLIANT!) Chantal Akerman last night, this little gem went down like an ice-cold root beer on a hot summer day in…well, in the Naked City.

Grade: B+

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