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  • Ravi Swami

"The Naked City", Dir: Jules Dassin, 1948

Besides watching Jules Dassins' French crime caper classic "Rififi" a few days ago, the big draw for me of his earlier 1948 American film noir "The Naked City" was the promise of views of post-war New York as it was roughly around the time that my father lived there for a short time, captured in some evocative B/W photos of the period.

I would put it alongside "Lovers and Lollipops" and "The Thief" as examples of films that use the real locations of late 1940's and 1950's New York as a backdrop, alongside the photos of Stanley Kubrick, who was an on-set photographer for Dassin's film, the work of "WeeGee", a visual consultant on the film, and the many reference photos that can be found online.

I watched the film on Criterion Channel which includes a mini-documentary entitled "Inside The Naked City" which explores the many locations that Dassin used in the film and which make it remarkable in the context of most Hollywood film noir which used studio sets, both internal and external, and back-projection, to add an element of authenticity and as such it offers up a view of the city, both internal and external, that is incredibly intimate given that it represented Dassin's own backyard.

The rumblings of the Hollywood blacklist combined with a restrictive contract with 20th Century Fox forced Dassin to consider a more independent route to making films after a successful few years working under the studio system and "The Naked City" was the result of a collaboration with the independent producer Mark Hellinger, who narrates the film's opening aerial shots of Long Island and segments throughout the film, lending it a documentary feel.

However, the plot is pure film noir "police procedural" - a genre that I'm not a particular fan of - that succeeds in drawing you in because of the rich detail of the scenes of New York street life ranging from the more affluent areas to the immigrant quarters that Dassin was very familiar with, and a sparky, entertaining script that feels very authentic and not po-faced, given the grim proceedings of the investigation of the murder of a fashion model.

Dassin's crew used cheap lighting rigs to film on location and at all times of the day, avoiding the usual "day for night" techniques to get the best out of the B/W stock that the film was shot in on particularly hot days, taking advantage of light and shade for dramatic effect.

I won't spoil the film by revealing the plot in too much detail other than to say that it focusses more on the details of the police investigation, led by Barry Fitzgerald's character, supported by a strong cast of Howard Duff playing a prime suspect and Don Taylor as a rookie investigating officer pounding the beat in search of leads as New York sweltered. The other "stars" are the denizens of New York, some accidental, such as the man pounding a gum machine on a subway platform before elbowing his way onto a train, though Dassin had no trouble in populating scenes in the film since the shoots attracted large crowds in a way that would make such filming impossible now.

The huge success of the film paved the way for Dassin's later European films such as "Rififi" after he left America following the blacklist and was very influential in the European New Wave neorealist movement.

The film is prefaced with information concerning the 4K restoration of the film from remaining prints held in various locations, such as at the British Film Institute, since no full print is known to be in existence due to various cuts imposed by distributors and because of general deterioration of the prints, so this version really does justice to both the backdrop of the film, New York, and the striking B/W photography supported by a great score from Miklós Rózsa.

"The Naked City", Dir: Jules Dassin, 1948

Viewed on Criterion Channel

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