Weekend Film Recommendation: The Naked City

Film_380w_NakedCity_originalDisruptive innovations in technology have been one of the defining aspects of the short history of cinematic art. The introduction of sound in the 1920s, followed by color in the 1930s, followed much more recently by computer-generated imagery — all of which had profound creative implications — are the ones with which most movie fans are familiar. A lesser known but still important set of innovations occurred in the 1940s: faster film, improved microphones and lighter-weight cameras and equipment. Combine these enhanced technologies with a large number of cinematographers gaining experience in shooting under every conceivable condition during World War II, and you had the basis for a raft of films shot in realistic style on location. This week’s film recommendation is a high-quality example of the form, which explicitly packaged itself as such: Jules Dassin’s 1948 docu-drama The Naked City.

As the famous voice-over narration tell us as the film opens with a stunning airplane shot of Manhattan, The Naked City is not just a story of a murder investigation but of New York City and the people in it. The narration was provided by producer Mark Hellinger, a Runyonesque Big Apple journalist whose own colorful life could have been the basis for a fine biopic itself if he hadn’t sadly dropped dead shortly after the movie was finished. With New York and New Yorkers being the main characters, the film tells the story of the murder of a beautiful striver/gold digger and the efforts of the police to solve it. In addition to being distinctly its own film, The Naked City also fits into the then-emerging subgenre of crime investigation procedurals (Call Northside 777, The Street With No Name, and He Walked by Night were also released in 1948).

The City that Never Sleeps, as seen through the Oscar-winning camerawork of William H. Daniels, has rarely been captured so vividly in film. Dozens of small performances, most of them I assume turned in by average NYCers rather than professional actors, add flavor throughout: The lady at the root beer stand, the guy hawking newspapers on a streetcorner, the funeral home director, the cop on the beat, the woman having her hair done and many others get their moment. Many of these little slices of life bear no relation to the murder mystery, but are instead intended to bring alive post-war Gotham.

The murder mystery itself is actually a bit slow and convoluted, but it’s watchable because Barry Fitzgerald once again plays a twinkly-eyed charmer with a brogue. As Detective Lieutenant Muldoon, he has wonderful father-son style byplay with his eager-beaver protege and investigative leg man Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor). The two of them help the film along during its slow spots, which most viewers will forget anyway because of the thrilling conclusion in which the police chase the killer on the Williamsburg bridge.

One critical note on The Naked City. It is often referred to as a film noir, but I don’t think the noir elements are really here. Jimmy Halloran’s incredibly happy and loving suburban family is revealed underneath to be…an incredibly happy and loving suburban family. The cops are all honest and clearly differentiated from the very bad gang of criminals. Urban dwellers are generally portrayed without cynicism and the look of the film owes more to Italian Neorealism than noir. If you want a police docu-drama that is also a noir, see my recommendation of He Walked by Night.

the_naked_city_scena1Final suggestion: The Naked City is so visually striking that if you seek it out, you owe it to yourself to watch the restored print available from the Criterion Collection.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: And Then There Were None

Rene Clair’s 1945 film And Then There Were None is superior suspense/comedy/romantic fare in the Hitchcockian tradition

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Agatha’s Christie’s tale of 10 strangers on a remote island who are mysteriously killed off one by one has been adapted countless times on stage, on television and on the big screen. But it will be hard to ever top the 1945 version that was the highlight of the otherwise forgettable English-language phase of French film director Rene Clair’s career: And Then There Were None.

The story opens with a wonderful extended non-verbal sequence in which a group of disparate people eye each other curiously on a rowboat that is making its way to a lonely island. They soon discover that they have been invited for a weekend trip from which they are not expected to return. The owner of the mansion in which they are staying had pledged to kill them all as vengeance for their past misdeeds. Who is the killer, and is he — or she — actually one of the guests?

Christie’s story is contrived beyond belief but is so much fun twist by twist that audiences have never cared. The mordant wit is a particular plus throughout, and keeps the audience smiling even as the bodies pile up. The film version uses the more upbeat ending from the stage version rather than the tenebrous wrap up from the book, which was probably a good decision given the wartime audience.

Clair turns in near-Hitchcock level direction in the comedy-romance-suspense vein, and the cast is roses. Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston sparkle as the leads, Judith Anderson is brilliant as always as one of the guest/victim/suspects, C. Aubrey Smith offers an agreeably demented take on his Commander McBragg routine, and Roland Young (who was hilarious in a prior RBC recommendation, Ruggles of Red Gap) is a hoot as a private detective whose brain works at half speed.

Last but not least among its virtues, this is a film that will appeal to a broad age range of audience. I know myself because I watched it twice with a gap of 30 years in between and loved it both times.

And Then There Were None is in the public domain so I embed it here for your viewing pleasure.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.