Canon Fodder: The Naked City


In Film/Genre, perhaps the best Film Studies book I know of, Rick Altman points out that Hollywood genres evolve through a process of a kind of grammatical synthesis: an existing genre is modified with new elements, which are tacked onto the description of the genre as an adjective. Over time, this adjective becomes a substantive noun, taking the place of the word it used to modify. For example: did you know that when the Hollywood Musical emerged in the late 1920s, it was advertised as “Musical Comedy,” or that Westerns from the teens were actually called “Western Melodramas”?

The point isn’t just about language: the change in terminology signifies a change in narrative form. In this shift, either new elements are dropped into an existing structure (think “Space Western”), or well-worn tropes are revivified by a new narrative structure. The Naked City (1948) is a moment when the very familiar tropes of the urban crime film—what would only later be called film noir—found a new narrative home when they were dropped into a pseudo-documentary structure. What emerged is what we would later call the “police procedural.” You can see in this film shades of the thousands of episodes of Dragnet and Law and Order to come.

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them.” This, the film’s tagline, is repeated a couple times within the film by its narrator, Producer Mark Hellinger. The line is clearly an outgrowth of the anti-Romantic romanticism of the city typical of film noir, but it also immediately strikes one as similar to the preludes to shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: “... In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” Likewise, The Naked City is, of course, about a salacious, sexually tinged crime: the murder of a shapely blonde model named Jean Dexter.

The voice-over narration is at least partially meant, one imagines, to tie more firmly together the sequence of events in the film. The Naked City doesn’t have much of a main character: it’s certainly not Jean, whose face we never really see (but whose murder is depicted in as much detail as 1948 can muster), and there’s no private eye to shepherd us from scene to scene. The closest we have is Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Irish character actor Barry Fitzgerald) and his young underling Detective Halloran (Don Taylor). But even they don’t direct our attention. Instead, it’s the narrator who shifts our attention between the action of the team of investigators led by Halloran. Being disconnected from its characters allows the film to play a little more loose with convention, however: the narrator sometimes speaks over the characters, when the detectives’ procedure becomes too rote to bother with an elaborated scene, and he sometimes leads us on tangents through the city.

The narrator also grounds the film’s interest in the procedures of policing. The film is fascinated by, and meticulous in depicting, forensic and administrative procedure in investigations. Forensic examinations, processes of deduction, technologies of examination and communication, the functioning of rank within a department, correct protocol for confronting a suspect—the film depicts a world in which these fine-tuned rational methods conquers the ambiguity of events. It defines the agents of this process—its characters—only enough to make them relatable in its isolated moments of drama. Muldoon is Irish, and Halloran is a decent, innocent guy—that’s what I got from 96 minutes of this movie. Hellinger’s narration gives the film character and structure that it would otherwise be hard to find.

That the film has a narrator is hardly strange for the time; that this narrator identifies himself as the producer of the film, and, rather than merely introducing the film, narrates the entire thing, is rather unexpected. Hellinger’s narration provides an objective tone, and sometimes even a bemused detachment, to the film. This quasi-objective stance is in line with the film’s most distinguishing characteristic among Hollywood crime films of the time: it was, apparently, filmed entirely on location in New York City (though one assumes that they at least used the old film studios in Astoria for some of the interior shots). The film takes advantage of its location shooting, with roving aerial shots of the skyline, montages of everyday life in the city, and chases through the streets. It’s striking, even now, to see a detective walk into a jewelry store and see framed behind him through the glass door a real city street

But this form has limitations in all kinds of areas. The purported objective stance of the film is really a kind of fetishization of law enforcement and its methods. The scant characterization sometimes feels cheap: when we see Halloran empathetically refuse to beat his son upon his wife’s request for him to do so, we know he’s in for life-threatening danger later in the film. The insistence on location shooting means, for lighting purposes, that almost the whole film takes place during the day—perfectly realistic, perhaps, but not very cinematic. Where the film noir used urban crime to examine social and existential anxiety, from its foundation the police procedural often slips into affirming easy truths—Police, Criminals, Family, Reason.

Tucked within The Naked City, it’s striking, if not terribly surprising, to find visual references to the films of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock (in 1948, directors were already using Hitchcock references as cultural capital!). The shot in which Jean’s landlady discovers her (off-screen) body, turns to the camera, and screams, is taken straight from Hitchcock’s Blackmail! (1929). The motif of small girls jumping rope in city streets while the city hunts a murderer comes from Lang’s M (1931)—there’s even a scene in which Muldoon observes their game from several floors up, evoking the high-angle shots in the opening sequence of that film. 

These allusions make sense: with films like M, Lang set the stage for the emergence of the police procedural, and of course, even before Psycho, nobody murdered women like Hitchcock. But those directors’ interest didn’t stop at form or procedure. Hitchcock’s films are dark, often wry looks into the hidden desires of (male) human beings. Lang wasn’t just interested in modern methods of police procedure; he was interested in the order and the chaos produced by modernity, in the alienated and distorted subjects that rationality produces. M ends with a kangaroo court set up by criminals—imitating the form of the legal system—which ends up being incapable of dealing with the twisted soul of a serial killer, answering it only with violence in kind. It’s difficult to extract that kind of meaning from the police procedural: it doesn’t give itself room to reflect on the processes it depicts, preferring to cultivate a sense of “objectivity” in its presentation of the facts. The Naked City may not lie in the way a melodrama lies, but it manages to find its own kinds of untruths to tell.