Excuse anyone expecting a grizzled true crime story from this early work from Jules Dassin, arguably the missing link between American noir and those malarial European art-house crime pictures of the ’50s and ’60s, films that in their own way paved early ground for the spatially-focused art-cinema likes of Antonioni. For those filmmakers, narratives were but loose constellations of events to hang questions of human modernity and architectural geometry on. And while those filmmakers would truly reorient cinema, Dassin’s films peek open the door that someone like Jean-Pierre Melville (not to mention the French New Wave) would eventually dynamite, laying brick work for a cabal of hungry young American film school students with a voracious appetite for anything radical and foreign. So the name Jules Dassin is, if nothing else, a name you, the consummate cinephile and obscure film blog reader, ought to know.
But, then again, those kids in the American New Wave had omnivorous eyes. They devoured everything from the Italian New-Wave to early American television (with its live-wire sense of present-tense flux and improvisation unbeknownst to many classical Hollywood films scripted, screen-tested, and focused to within an inch of life). So we can’t exactly imply that Dassin is solely to thank for the New Wave…
But wouldn’t you know it: Dassin’s The Naked City gets wasted at the same watering hole as all of the above. His film, the inspiration for arguably the Papa Bear of all crime TV shows (bearing the same name as the film), was first and foremost Dassin’s alibi for introducing the rough-and-ready-to-rumble tempo of the Italian neo-realist movement into the Hollywood machine, unmooring the noir just a smidgen from the iron-clad judiciousness of Weimar era German Expressionism (where every single shot and beat was painstakingly and beautifully arranged for maximum knife-twisting). And indeed, this film was hewn directly on the streets of New York rather than in a studio (groundbreaking for the time, and a big inspiration for not only the New York television scene but the verite movement just waiting to call the neo-realist bluff and introduce a cinema style even more overtly improvisational). So Dassin’s film certainly has the “importance” box checked.
But what about the good cinema box? Well, if the from-the-gutters filming is The Naked City’s claim to fame, it doesn’t rest on its laurels. For a dude like Dassin, merely sticking Italian neo-realism in the New York City streets dressed in detective’s garb and wearing its finest clenched, punchy gangster patois isn’t enough. Cackling with lightning, Dassin uses the noir as a conceptual alibi more than a framework; one gets the sense that the noir-adjacent plot was simply an excuse to advertise for audiences starved for the next parched-throat, husky-voiced slice of gumption from the underbelly of the street.
What The Naked City actually aims for requires a greater dose of moxie still: an amusingly absurdist, pro-social glimpse into dry-bones comedy. It begins with a lyrical, almost avuncular opening narration that blankets a camera track over the city, a combination so dreamlike it seems to be testing the mettle of the title “city that never sleeps”. Wearing its artifice like a badge of honor, we haven’t even met a single inhabitant of this geometric circus scrawl of buildings and the film is hardly playfully counterpoising tones and imaginative frameworks without explanation. On one hand, the characters are introduced in a proto-naturalist feint, like tumbleweeds going about their daily business with no narrative strings attached. On the other, the camera flying over the city has a woozy vibe, calming narration in tow, ultimately registering as the polar opposite of a bid for realism.
But that’s Dassin for you. Not his most radical or his best film, the intro is nonetheless more silently provocative: introduced to each character in an almost free-associative sequence of unnamed ne’er-do-wells nakedly minding their own business (for some this means murder, for others strolling down the street) without a pretense of narrative, the film then corrals them all into a plot as we are introduced to each again in the confines of a structured narrative. Although the actual story is by-the-book, Dassin is always on the hunt for margins to scribble in: by foregrounding the characters outside of the narrative, the film implicitly winks at us, laying bare the fact that narrative is itself a construct rather than an innate reality.
In the neo-realist tradition, the audience cannot follow the story without slivers of the “off-stage” lives of these characters peeking in, invoking the power of celluloid to peer over the brick wall of narrative. The famous film-closing tagline goes “there are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them”. But the panoramic vista of the opening complicates any story, exploring a fractured city of bustling individual electrons that must be forcibly funneled into a cohesive tale that acknowledges that linear narratives are ways of ordering a world that resists ordering at every turn. This has been one story, but no one story is ever complete. No character is merely a detective or a criminal or a victim, and although life defines roles, it also defies them.
The opening is, alas, the film at its most disobedient, but Dassin’s wry touch for experiment plagues the film like an infestation of critical thought on an otherwise scrubbed-clean noir ready for easy, safe public consumption. For one, although the plot – a mere murder investigation – is sufficiently hoarse with its matter-of-fact depiction of drugging and drowning, our guide to New York’s uncovered underworld is lilting, one Dan Muldoon played by Barry Fitzgerald as a weary Irish detective. He’s seen it all and reacts with a chipper beat as if holding onto his optimism for dear life.
Admittedly, Dassin would wait to blossom as a visualist until his trip over the pond (his socialist leanings made him persona non grata in the states), but you can detect the ripening of his politics even this early on. The psychological fetish of most ’50s films (Hitchcock’s weight pressing firmly on American cinema) is kept to a minimum, and crime in The Naked City is rooted firmly in social, material relations (as a need for money in a world of limited resources) rather than pacified with pathology. Rather than drilling into the killer’s heads and exploring why certain human minds are awry, we confront crime as a fact of life to be coped with and not a psychosis to be medicated. The Naked City pushes back against the coming retreat into American individualism found in ‘50s American cities, defying the impulse to compartmentalize characters into good and bad moralities. For Dassin, they’re all just naked people getting by, all clocking in to their particular version of the grind.