Review of The Naked CIty (1948)

Lacking many elements of film noir style, this cop movie tracks two detectives investigating a murder mystery in The Naked City. Director Jules Dassin and producer-narrator Mark Hellinger may have been trying to freshen the film noir formula with this documentary-style film that comes down firmly on the side of law and order. But if it doesn't look or feel like a noir, is it really a noir? Still, this forerunner of TV cop shows is reasonably entertaining due to cinematographer William Daniels' crisp visuals and the performance of Barry Fitzgerald, surely one of the most unlikely leading men.

A tiny man with a huge arsenal of facial expressions, Fitzgerald has a fine time as veteran detective Dan Muldoon, who's breaking in new partner Jimmy Halloran on the homicide beat. Their ironic banter surely set the stage for later detective duos to trade quips. It also keeps the movie going, a job that's underserved by the central plot. Try as they might, the filmmakers can't whip up much audience interest in the murder of a model that's investigated by Muldoon and Halloran. There's not much noir suspense over whether the cop heroes here will close the case. And it's also because the death chiefly affects her slimy friend Frank Niles (Howard Duff hamming it up) and her fellow model Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart who interprets her role literally--why else is she so wooden?). The only real human emotion is glimpsed when the model's anguished, angry mother cries out after seeing her dead daughter, "Dear God, why couldn't she have been born ugly?"

The real star of the movie is the naked city itself. Not only do real New York locations star in the movie, so does the spirit of the big city reveal itself. Murder is turned into entertainment by a hungry media and a hungrier public salivating over lurid details. And when New Yorkers are shown posing for pictures at the murder victim's home, that's not just entertainment. It rings as the naked truth, even now.

(May 14, 2002)

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