Friday, December 19, 2008

The Naked City

"The Naked City" (Jules Dassin, 1948) It started with Weegee. The homunculous photographer of New York's gritty, seemy side published a book of his night-time photos of back-alley rendezvous, police-work, wet and dry, and New York's underbelly (fleas and all) bathed in the harsh glow of neon or Weegee's harsher strobe. The book had the provocative title "Naked City," so, of course, it became a best-seller.

Producer
Mark Hellinger bought the rights to make a movie of it with the intention of making a pot-boiler with the city of New York as the focal point and star. No big stars, just character actors would appear in it, and it would reflect Weegee's photography with the story of a police investigation of a lurid murder amid real New York locations. He hired screenwriters Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald for the screenplay, and to direct he brought in director Jules Dassin, whose prison drama "Brute Force" showed he had an unsentimental flair for that material.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the motion picture you are about to see is called 'The Naked City.' My name is Mark Hellinger. I was in charge of its production. But I may as well tell you frankly that it's a bit different from most films you've ever seen. It was written by Albert Maltz and Alvin Wald, photographed by William Daniels and directed by Jules Dassin. As you see, you're flying over an island. A city. A particular city. And this is the story of a number of people. A story, also, of the city itself. It was not photographed in a studio. Quite the contrary, Barry Fitzgerald our star, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Ted deCorsia and the other actors played out their roles in the streets, in the apartment houses, in the sky-scrapers of New York itself. And along with them a great many thousand New Yorkers played out their roles, also. This is the city as it is. Hot city pavements. Children at play. The building in its naked stone. People without make-up."

And for the most part, they succeeded. Dassin can be quite "arty" in his direction, but restricted to real locations in the New York in the middle of the day, he sometimes had to get what shot he could any way he could—hiding the camera in trucks, newsstands, anything that would keep from drawing a sizeable crowd. A gawking clutch of citizenry would ruin the effect of a real story being played out. With the exception of a couple of process shots inside cars, the film pretty much keeps its promise.
But there is a disconnect. Despite the verisimilitude of the staging, the actors are still very much acting. The script, especially in its dialogue, is a bit too clever, and follows the conventions of Hollywood story construction exactly to code. This type of film had been done before with "The House on 92nd Street" directed by Henry Hathaway, during the noir/cost-cutting days of the studios, and would be done again with "Panic in the Streets," directed by Elia Kazan. The city may be New York in 1948, but the story takes place somewhere between reality and artifice.
Hellinger, who also narrates the film (in a grand-standing display of ego that would only be equalled by Cecil B. DeMille, and less so, by John Huston and Orson Welles), succumbed to a heart attack when the film was being previewed, at the age of 44, ending a colorful career as newspaperman, screenwriter, producer, film executive, and New York gad-about. Despite the number of classic films with his name attached, Hellinger may be best remembered for the last line of his last film, which has endured and entered the pop culture.


"It is one o'clock in the morning again and this is the city. And these are the lights a child born to the name of Petori hungered for. Her passion has been played out now. Her name, her face, her history were worth five cents a day for six days. Tomorrow, a new case will hit the headlines. Yet some will remember Jean Dexter. She won't be entirely forgotten. Not entirely. Not altogether. There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them."
Last year, "The Naked City" was chosen by the Library of Congress to be a part of the National Film Registry.

There are 475 movies in the Film Registry.
* "The Naked City" is one of them.
* They're listed here. This year's films will be announced at the end of the year.

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