In 1945 Arthur Fellig, known as Weegee, a canny and gifted tabloid newspaper photographer, did something unprecedented: he assembled some of his best shots, of corpses and fires and arrests and crowds and spectacles, and made them into a book, published in hardcover—this at a time when photography books were still relatively rare, and tabloid photography lay beneath the notice of most people who bought books. It was called Naked City, and it became a minor best seller.
Not long after, Mark Hellinger, a producer and screenwriter who had gotten his start as a newspaper columnist of the sunlight-and-shadows school (think Damon Runyon with an extra dose of schmaltz), was putting together a crime picture in the wake of his success with The Killers (1946), Robert Siodmak’s adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway short story, one of the first postwar pictures to earn the designation “film noir.” He wanted New York City to be the main character, as it had been in his columns, and for the film to partake of a documentary feel, even to be shot on location, something not much done at the time. His chief writer, Martin Wald, brought him a script titled Homicide. Someone, possibly Wald, also brought Hellinger a copy of Weegee’s book, and the script was suddenly retitled The Naked City. Hellinger then hired Weegee as the production’s still photographer.
Hellinger chose as his cinematographer William Daniels, a great craftsman—once known as “Garbo’s cameraman”—whose career demonstrates how brief the history of the movies has been: he shot Greed (1925) at one end of it and Valley of the Dolls (1967) at the other. Among Hellinger’s writers numbered Albert Maltz, who was arrested in the course of the production for contempt of court, or on some other handy charge, by agency of the House Un-American Activities Committee; he became one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. As director, Jules Dassin was engaged. He, too, would get in trouble with HUAC and move to Europe one movie later. Hellinger hired himself to provide the mildly oleaginous narration; the spoken credits at the beginning were a gimmick he lifted from Orson Welles.
The Naked City (1948) might be considered one of those movies (such as, for example, Val Lewton’s) in which the producer is the auteur. But Dassin, held somewhat in check here, had his own aesthetic, and it fights its way to the surface. Dassin was and remained an erratic artist, although he made several important crime pictures along the way: Brute Force (1947), Night and the City (1950), and Rififi (1955). It is his peculiar fate to be best remembered for movies that were least typical of him. He could work within the strictures of urban documentary realism, as he does here in The Naked City, at Hellinger’s behest, but his own sensibility was operatic, antirealist, over-the-top. His mark is most pronounced in the end sequence, a thrilling chase that is arguably the most memorable thing in the picture.
The Naked City was not a great success, either critically or financially—although it did launch a long-running television series with the same title, which employed the catchphrase heard at the end of the movie: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” Its formal qualities are its strong point. Its depiction of the city as a huge ongoing narrative spotlighted with vignettes is a trope that descends from tabloid philosophy. The specifics of its use here might derive from Agnes Rogers’s 1934 book Metropolis, which depicts a day in the life of New York City in more than two hundred photographs, with running commentary by Frederick Lewis Allen that contrives various stick-figure narratives, taking commuters to work and back, socialites to the opera, goods to market, gangsters to the pokey, and so on. It also owes a debt to King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), one of the greatest American silent films, famous among other things for its bravura shot up the side of a skyscraper, in through a window, and across endless rows of desks, before stopping at the hero’s.
Weegee organized his book along similar lines, and his influence can be felt in many particulars of the montage: the children’s games, the pushcart vendors, the crowds of rubberneckers—as well as, a bit less happily, the peanut-gallery voice-overs that intrude every now and again. Location shooting was unusual then since seemingly every cinematic need could be filled by the vast studio lots and soundstages. In truth, there is less of it here than there might be, certainly far less than in the films the Italian neorealists were making at the time. Dassin shot some scenes with a camera concealed in a van, others apparently through two-way mirrors, but rear projection is employed in several key scenes. Even so, it is the teeming, unscripted life of the city that gives the movie its sweep and its intrinsic documentary interest. You see kids jumping into the river from the docks and playing games on the walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge, horses pulling milk wagons and peddlers’ carts, El trains rattling overhead in lower Manhattan, pretzel vendors displaying their wares on sticks, laborers going about their trades. Such things are now vanished and thus exotic. At the time, they were common sights, but even for city dwellers who passed them every day, their presence in a movie confirmed their reality in a new and unexpected way.
The story that lies underneath all this packaging is slight and fairly routine. We pass through the various stages of a police procedural led by professional Irishman Barry Fitzgerald. In the process, the cops turn up a raft of villains, including such prominent 1950s lugs (seen here early in their careers) as Ted DeCorsia and Howard Duff (who had the good fortune to marry Ida Lupino). The involvement of various Communists is not the sole reason for the picture’s class consciousness—that came with the territory, and the period. Of course a murder investigation would extend from the Lower East Side slums to the palaces of Park Avenue, and of course a society sawbones and a showroom model would be implicated alongside a wrestler and a dipsomaniac. Anyway, it’s more fun to follow rookie cop Don Taylor as he hoofs it from drugstore to jewelry shop—real ones, well kept and atmospheric—than to watch the interplay in the Homicide squad room. Compensating for any dramatic defects, though, is the climactic chase scene through the tenement alleys of the Lower East Side, down Delancey Street, onto the bridge, and up its first tower. The streets are populated with unwitting extras who only gradually become aware of the drama going on in their midst. The tower is very high and weirdly—to our eyes—unlocked. The East River is really there, far below, with Manhattan and Brooklyn fanning out to either side. The quarry, hemmed in from all sides, has no direction to go but up. For just an instant you find yourself wondering how it is that the camera got up there with him.
The vast, churning web of stories that the metropolis represents lies down below. All along we’ve been shown a workaday world with no heroes and few villains—mostly just humans with various jobs that put them on different sides of the law. Now, suddenly, we are thrust into melodrama of titanic grandeur. The trapped gunman’s ascension of the tower, as if he were launching an assault on heaven, is worthy of Wagner. Its closest cinematic analogue is the end of Raoul Walsh’s White Heat, which came out the following year and which actually features the film noir equivalent of an aria in James Cagney’s “Top of the world, ma!” Here there are no speeches, just steel girders and camera angles, the material reality of the bridge forcing the baroque strangeness of the scene back to tabloid realism. When Hellinger’s voice assures us that this has been one of eight million stories, we realize that what we briefly experienced as a cosmic struggle up above the earth was really just another statistic.
Luc Sante is the author of Low Life, Evidence, The Factory of Facts, and Walker Evans and coeditor of O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors. He teaches at Bard College.