Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Naked City (1948) New York Policier Noir Masterpiece

"There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."
One of the first and great police procedural films.

Directed by Jules Dassin who gave us (Brute Force (1947), and a number of films that highlighted various iconic cityscape's, San Francisco/Oakland, California in Thieves' Highway (1949), 1950 London in Night and the City, '55 Paris in Rififi, and greater New York City in this. The film was based on a story by Malvin Wald and the screenplay is credited to Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald. Wald claimed he found the story in the actual New York police files, and just changed a few details to fit the narrative.

An Academy Award, went to cinematography for William H. Daniels, and it well should have, though in reality comparatively for a Noir, it's not for the most part a "visually" dark film. What it does have is a heavy dose of gritty reality. A reality inspired and starkly documented by the crime scene photography of the original "nightcrawler" Arthur "WeeGee"  Fellig, a freelance press photographer who during the 1930s and 1940s, developed his signature style by using a police band radio to monitor the city's emergency calls.

Hollywood gave us it's slick, artistic ersatz New York cleverly weaving skimpily lit, dark back lot sets, and matte painted backdrops with second unit footage and often has downtown L.A. subbing in for many US cities.

The Battery, Manhattan, NYC
This film is the real deal, shot on the sidewalks, the streets, The neighborhoods the els, the bridges. They used real New Yorkers, capturing them with two way mirrors and hidden cameras, as extras, playing what else, real New Yorkers. It's a film loaded with New York City archetypes some frozen in time others now long gone, and it's brimming with three second vignettes that illustrate scenes from hardboiled stories never filmed. There, is the milkman and his horse Mamie, from Cornell Woolrich's "Mamie 'n' Me," or the rickety rattling el going through the Coneties Slip "S" curve recalling his "Death in The Air." Other shots are reminiscent of the 87th Precinct police procedural writings of Ed McBain and still others the hard boiled violence of Mikey Spillane's Mike Hammer.


3rd Ave el, Coneties Slip "S" Curve
The film, for New Yorkers of a certain age, me for instance, shows a snapshot of the New York that existed just before I was born. Growing up in the city, quite a few of the sequences jog distant early childhood memories, imprints, that's the way it was, others verify the stories my mother and her sisters would tell. Curiously certain things survived beyond the film others didn't. For instance, the Third Ave. el and some swaths of  Lower East Side neighborhoods it served, that show in the chase climax of the film, were completely wiped off the face of the earth in 1950 to be replaced by urban renewal projects like the high rise Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses.

BMT Standards rolling into Queensboro Plaza

A few makes of the GMC city buses shown in the film still ran on into the early 1960s, but the "sky view" taxi cabs no. There is a shot of string of BMT Standards coming up the grade from the 60th Street tunnel under the East River into Queensboro Plaza Station. I either used to ride that very same train home. Or it was the view, as in the film, I witnessed personally many times on my way from Manhattan back to Queens standing on the South platform waiting, if I had rode instead the IRT and had to make a transfer. It's quite a unique shot for it also shows, what would be the last NYC trolley, traveling across the Queensboro Bridge and the last vestiges of the 2nd Avenue el tracks (the elevated was completely demolished in Manhattan in September of 1942.

I remember getting milk delivered by a milkman, albeit by my time he had already switched to driving a truck. The only horses I remember are the ones still around, the Central Park Carriage's and the NYPD mounted police. There was also a guy that drove around the neighborhoods who sharpened scissors, knives, tools.

Another Academy Award went to Paul Weatherwax for film editing. The music was by Miklós Rózsa and Frank Skinner.

Detective Muldoon (Fitzgerald)

Detective Halloran (Taylor)

Frank Niles (Duff) Ruth Morrison  (Hart)

Garzah (de Corsia)

The film stars Barry Fitzgerald (Union Station (1950)) as Detective Lt. Dan Muldoon, Howard Duff  (Brute Force (1947), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), Private Hell 36 (1954), and ensemble Noir While the City Sleeps (1956)) as Frank Niles, Noir second tomato Dorothy Hart (Larceny (1948), Undertow (1949)) as Ruth Morrison, Don Taylor as Detective Jimmy Halloran, Frank Conroy as Captain Donahue, Ted de Corsia (no less than six other classic noir as Willie Garzah, House Jameson as Dr. Lawrence Stoneman, Anne Sargent as Mrs. Halloran, Adelaide Klein as Mrs. Paula Batory, Grover Burgess as Mr. Batory, Tom Pedi as Detective Perelli, Enid Markey as Mrs. Edgar Hylton, Walter Burke as Pete Backalis, Virginia Mullen as Martha Swenson, along with many uncredited parts with actors of note among them Paul Ford, James Gregory, John Marley, David Opatoshu, Kathleen Freeman and Arthur O'Connell.

Jules Buck and Mark Hellinger were the producers, with Hellinger also providing the narration. Hellinger interestingly was also one of the first "Broadway columnists" along with Damon Runyon and Walter Winchell.

"Hellinger, like the other great Broadway columnist and raconteur 'Damon Runyon', was a purveyor of stories of New York's demimonde, filled with wise-guy jargon. His stories were different from Runyon's, which relied on mythic archetypes, as they featured realistic depictions of actual people. Many of Hellinger's characters were composites of people he met on the Broadway beat."

(source IMDb)

The story

Two goons, one of them, Willie Garzah (de Corsia), the other Pete Backalis (Walter Burke) in the first  noir sequence in the film, attack and chloroform a woman, Jean Dexter, in her shadowy apartment. To make sure she's dead they dump her in a bathtub full of water. Later, on an East River pier, Garzah's now drunk partner is remorsefully babbling, dangerously out loud, about how he never killed anyone before. This stew bum is now a definite liability. Garzah grabs up a two by four and crushes his skull. He then picks up his body and tosses it in the river.

Willie Garza: Thought you were off the liquor. Liquor is bad. Weakens your character. How can a man like me trust a liar like you? I can't.

A cleaning lady finds Jean's body and emergency services are called. The medical examiner tells the beat cops he suspects foul play so a 22 year veteran Homicide Detective Lt. Dan Muldoon (Fitzgerald) and his protégé, Det. Jimmy Halloran (Taylor), are assigned to Jean's case.

Halloran, Muldoon, and Sgt. Dave Miller (David Opatoshu)

Piece by piece the two put their case together, their clues come from a bottle of sleeping pills, an address book, and  a few names they get from the cleaning lady, one of them Jean's friend Mr. Henderson.  He left his pj's at her apartment, you know what that means, wink, wink, scandalous for 1948. The other name she divulges is her other friend Frank Niles.

The policemen question Ruth Morrison, Jean's fellow dress model and best friend, and Dr. Stoneman her doctor. They get no leads on Henderson. When they get around to grilling Frank Niles, Jean's former business associate, they find out, after checking out his story, that he's a pathological liar. He wasn't a captain in WWII in fact he wasn't even in the service. He turns out to be a schemer who has half a dozen rackets cooking along on the back burner to keep him afloat. It turns out he's also engaged to Ruth, who didn't really know the fullest sleazy extents of his relationship to Jean. Muldoon assigns two detectives to follow him.

From the coroners examination, i.e the bruises on Jean's neck, they deduce that it must have been two men who killed her. Frank's alibi checks out so he's ruled out as one of the killers. However Frank continues to act suspiciously. He sells a gold cigarette case at a pawn shop, and then buys a one-way airline ticket to Mexico with some of the doe. The police trace the the case to a list of stolen items from Dr. Stoneman, they also check a ring fond on Jean's body that also turns up on another stolen property list of items stolen from a Mrs Hylton.

When the police bring the stolen ring back to Mrs. Hylton, they discover, when her daughter walks in the door, that she is Ruth Morrison's mother. Muldoon and Halloran next ask to see Ruth's engagement ring and discover that it is also on a stolen property list.

The detectives, with Ruth in tow, head next to Frank's apartment to confront him about the stolen property. They get there just in time to save him from Garzah who has just chloroformed Frank to clean up his loose ends. Garzah heads out the fire escape and Halloran gives chase, but Grazah gets away on a 3rd Avenue el.

<spoilers for those that have never seen this>

Back at the apartment, Frank comes to, and after questioning, tells the police that he got the cigarette case and the engagement ring from Jean. He's immediately arrested. On the hot seat at police headquarters, a jeweler from Boston fingers Frank as the man who sold him stolen jewelry. The man produces a letter of introduction for Frank that was signed by Dr. Stoneman. Franks story was that he had to sell the jewels to raise money for an operation for his sister.

Muldoon now tells Frank he's going to the pen for jewel theft, for how long is up to him. Muldoon wants to know who Mr. Henderson is. Frank cracks and tells the whole story. Henderson was an alias for Dr. Stoneman. Stoneman was basically fucked stupid. Jean used Stoneman. Stoneman's wife was a notorious party giver, from her guest lists Jean would finger wealthy attendees for burglary. Tipped off, Grazah and Backalis would do the jobs during the parties Garzah, however, wanted a bigger cut of the swag and confronted Jean who told him basically to go to hell. That got her dead.

Meanwhile Halloran working another angle also gets Garzah's identity. From a lead from Garzah's brother he gets some old publicity photos and a manhunt and chase through the Lower East Side of Noirsville is on.


Halloran and the uncredited (James Gregory)

Muldoon: No, the picnic is over, you've told your last lie. You're knee deep in stolen jewlery. You're involved the the Dexter Murder. You've been trying to obstruct justice all along the line. Now you're gonna tell me what I want to know or so help me if it's the last thing I do in this department, I'll get you twenty years. Now that's the truth Sonny Boy, and you know I'm not bluffing. Who's Henderson? Who's Henderson?

Frank Niles: Stoneman! It's Doctor Stoneman.

The uncredited Kathleen Freeman in her first film

Hellinger (narrator): ever see a guy that looks like this?

Hellinger (narrator): Hey lady ever see a guy that looks like this?

Pennsylvania Station

Hellinger (narrator): Hey lady ever see a guy that looks like this?

Yes, there were pot belly stoves in the el stations

Times Square

Halloran and uncredited Paul Ford

Detective Perelli (Pedi)
Muldoon: What can you tell me about Mr. Niles' Business?

Perelli: He ain't got a business. It's a dodge. No credit rating. Dropped from his university club for non-payment of dues. Still owes a food and liquor bill of hundred and ten dollars and eighty three cents.

3rd Avenue el

As the cops get closer and closer to capturing Grazah the cinematography stylistically gives the impression that it is not only the investigators, but the city itself, it's grids and diagonals, the physical parts of its various superstructures, like nets of steel, brick, and concrete, are begining to slowly enclose around him.

Screencaps from the Criterion DVD, 9/10.

PS - The only comparable film that I've seen that does a snapshot in time for L.A. similar to the way The Naked City does for New York is the Experimental Noir The Savage Eye (1960) reviewed here: The Savage Eye