Directed by Jules Dassin
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 96 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono
Release Date: March 20, 2007
Review Date: March 10, 2007
The proliferation of television crime dramas over the last half century, everything from the various Law & Order and CSI shows to N.Y.P.D. Blue and all the way back to the groundbreaking Dragnet, owes a debt of gratitude to Jules Dassin’s revolutionary 1948 docudrama The Naked City. Starting with a view of a murder filmed in shadows so we can’t quite make out the identities of the perpetrators, the film proceeds as we’re so now accustomed to seeing with the investigation of the crime scene (complete with forensics 1948-style), interviews of witnesses, friends, and suspects, and the almost endless miles of streets, buildings, and bridges that must be traversed to arrive at the solution of the crime. Modern technology allows these events to be shown today in more visually intriguing ways, but The Naked City actually laid the groundwork for all subsequent films and television shows to use as a launch pad for their own procedural modus operandi.
Model/party girl Jean Dexter is murdered by person or persons unknown, and it’s up to homicide lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and his squad to solve the case. The investigation, like many such inquiries, moves ahead in fits and starts, sometimes uncovering small leads but just as often heading down blind alleys. As the police methodically link bits and pieces of the puzzle, they find a much more convoluted scheme than a simple murder implicating quite a few people. The uncovering of these unexpected twists and turns of the case gives The Naked City much of its surprise and suspense.
For fans of crime dramas either in film or on television, a single viewing of The Naked City will be an eye-opener. There are many motifs in the film that were later borrowed by such celebrated accomplishments as The French Connection and Hill Street Blues, and the tight screenplay doesn’t waste a second of screen time on flashy sequences where the director could show off his location filming or let the viewer marvel at the quirky characters. Everything in the film serves a single purpose of making The Naked City as compact a crime drama as was possible to make. And if the narration by producer Mark Hellinger is sometimes more irritating than enlightening, it’s perhaps the only weak link in a very strong mix.
Jules Dassin’s expert direction in the streets and buildings of New York combined with the ingratiating performances of Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor (as his second in command), and the supporting cast of largely unknown New York stage actors give an authentic feel for time and place that sets the movie apart from any studio-shot thrillers of the same period. And it’s great fun picking out such wonderful unbilled character actors at the dawn of their careers like Kathleen Freeman, John Randolph, and James Gregory in fleeting cameo moments that add so much to the movie.
The film’s original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is presented in a beautiful black and white transfer very slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s trademark style. Contrast is superb, and the image is very sharp with black blacks and a pleasing and striking grayscale. There are some thin scratches that crop up now and again, but in the main, Criterion has done an excellent job cleaning up the film for this DVD release. Just one look at the clips that are used to illustrate the video lectures on the disc gives a great indication on how much time and effort has gone into ridding the transfer of dirt and damage. The film is divided into 24 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is strong, clear, and full. Unlike some recent Criterion releases I’ve reviewed, the volume level of the audio track has not been hyped. For a film of this age, I noticed no distortion, hiss, or crackle on the soundtrack.
An audio commentary recorded in 1995 by story creator and screenwriter Malvin Wald is available for selection. Wald is well spoken and while he does occasionally narrate the film as it happens before our eyes, the descriptions often lead him off on more valuable reminiscences on the making of the picture as well as other trivia associated with the personnel involved in its creation.
There is a 28-minute critique of the film by NYU film professor Dana Polan presented in anamorphic video. In discussing the combination of American noir motifs and Italian neorealism influences on Dassin’s work, it’s a valuable and worthwhile featurette. Criterion has thoughtfully divided this into 6 chapters.
A 25-minute anamorphic video interview with architect and writer James Sanders describes the New York of the postwar era and how accurately Dassin’s film has captured an important element of New York’s place in time through this feature. In this and in the previous featurette, generous excerpts from the film and from stills are used to illustrate the items under discussion. Again, Criterion has made the narrator’s points easily accessible by dividing the segment into 8 chapters.
A 2004 appearance in Los Angeles by 93-year old Jules Dassin at a screening of his 1954 film Riffifi was captured in a nonanamorphic widescreen video and is presented here to celebrate the famous director. Though his age keeps him from recalling specifics about his films (and he stubbornly refuses to talk about his MGM period in any detail), it's still a wonderful 40-minute tribute to a man treated not so well by Hollywood during the McCarthy period.
A 13 page booklet enclosed in the package includes an appreciation of the film by author and educator Luc Sante and a letter from producer Mark Hellinger (who died shortly after the film had its first preview) to director Jules Dassin discussing the filming of the climactic chase sequence that eventually brings the film to a galvanizing conclusion.
The DVD concludes with a selection of film stills. The stills would have been more interesting had they not almost all been used in illustrating the two featurettes on the disc.
The DVD packaging advertises a theatrical trailer as an included feature, but it is not on the disc.
The Naked City is where it all started in the realm of police procedurals. On its own, it’s a crackerjack crime drama, but as an icon for what was to come in this genre, its importance cannot be overstated. Highly recommended.