Filmed on location in the Big Apple, Jules Dassin’s very moving black-and-white The Naked City is routinely categorized as a film noir. It is nothing of the sort. Most of it unfolds in daylight, there is no femme fatale, nor is there shadowy moral complexity (except that some criminals draw the line at murder), and the one whose dreams are crushed is the murder victim, a young blonde by the name of Jean Dexter. Her double identity—Dexter’s original name was Mary Batory—brushes past noirism, to be sure. But we never see Batory/Dexter except as a corpse. The character is essential to set the plot in motion but unimportant otherwise. Her reality is not a part of the film.
Dassin’s film, which was written by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald, from Wald’s story, is correctly described as a semi- or pseudo-documentary police procedural. It follows two detectives, Lt. Dan Muldoon and beginner Jimmy Halloran, as they routinely investigate Dexter’s murder. Lots of legwork!
Some of the film’s best material is peripheral. His wife wants Halloran to take a strap to their son for disobeying a rule by crossing a dangerous street. Halloran won’t do it. Before the war there is little doubt that some counterpart of his would have measured up to this “unpleasant duty”; but hasn’t the world changed? His child’s independent streak hardly qualifies for so drastic a reprisal as corporal punishment. Halloran’s wife, who thinks she knows everything, calls her husband a coward. (In the line of duty, Halloran gets beaten up and shot at.) But as a representative of pre-war tradition, Halloran’s wife may be behind the times.
Dassin’s filmmaking dazzles, but for me the film’s “star” is cutter Paul Weatherwax, who won an Oscar for his work here. He turns a good many of the best shots (gorgeously photographed by William Daniels, who was also Oscared) into inserts, and the result is a diamond-faceted portrait of the city and of city life.
Producer Mark Hellinger memorably narrates: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
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