Naked City

NakedCityPosterBefore the hard-coded police procedural formula was set, there were interesting things done, cinematically and on old TV, with police stories. The original Dragnet was concerned with a crime every episode, but the manner in which that crime was committed, or the actions the cops took, were necessarily different each time. Sometimes half the episode was taken up by examining one crime scene. Sometimes it was a series of interviews. In one memorable episode, nearly the whole running time of the show is spent sitting with a suspect, while he tells the cops the why and how of his crimes (that one starred Lee Marvin).

Naked City, the movie, predates Dragnet by some years. Its approach to the material, so familiar to modern audiences, is preceded with a narration about how, exactly, it might be different from movies with which the audience was familiar. What follows is ninety-six minutes of police work, mixed with some semi-documentary footage of New York in the late 40s. All of the locations are in New York, with the climax set on the Williamsburg Bridge.

The crime itself is of the typical procedural variety, with the requisite twists (one thing Dragnet did not do was rely on twists – a lot of police work is straightforward, and so were many of their episodes). An attractive girl is killed, her handsome boyfriend covers something up, an earlier lead that seems to go nowhere ends up cracking the case. Typical procedural stuff, maybe a lot of it done here first, but that’s an academic question – there’s no way that you, the viewer, can unsee the hours and hours of cop shows you’ve seen. What you want to know, I presume, is: what does Naked City have to offer a 21st Century viewer?

For me, the most interesting stuff was what happened in the background. The crime lab techs use the latest technology, which looks practically medieval compared to a CSI kit. But these were the smart people of their day, doing things in the smartest way they knew how. When a tech finds some hairs, the wily and very Irish lead detective compares them surreptitiously to a cleaning lady’s. Fingerprints are checked, but all are smudges. Potentially stolen jewels are checked against a handwritten log. Men’s pants go practically nipple high. Root Beer is sold in a paper cone. A man can live in the city, and there’s no record to check for his address. They find him by passing around a picture, covering the neighborhood, asking questions. When you’ve seen enough of one kind of story, it cannot be the major plot points that get you. Those are the same (and if they were different, you’d get mad the story didn’t fulfill your lizard brain’s needs). But the ancillary, the smaller details and the scenery, become the point. This essay that accompanies the Criterion Collection DVD of Naked City says the producer wanted the city to be the star, and so it is. There are marvelous shots of the skyline, of the individual buildings. If you have a Lileks-type imagination, I think you could have hours of fun researching the real locations, comparing and contrasting.

That’s not the sort of thing I do. I watch movies, I don’t go outside. And while Naked City has some points to make about the disconnect of the police from the people they protect, and how the city devours its young, splashing them on the front page and forgetting them the next day, that kind of movie has been made since, and elsewhere, and it’s not as interesting as the pictures here. Naked City is a decent cop story with a lot of very pretty pictures.

About Kent Conrad

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