It’s difficult to completely understand the freshness and impact of Jules Dassin’s The Naked City today, but in 1948 when the film first appeared, it was little short of revelatory because of its location shooting. While films had partly been made on location for as long as there had been films, the standard practice had long been to use locations only as a last resort. More often than not, a separate camera crew shot background footage that was then placed behind the actors who never left the studio. It wasn’t just more economical; it was a matter of control. Location shooting was awkward, and sound recording posed an even greater problem. In fact, the sound recording on Dassin’s film often leaves much to be desired, but it seemed—and seems—a small price to pay for the almost documentary realism of the film—a kind of realism that had not been seen on the screen before. The story—a film noir police procedural mystery—was no better than it had to be, though the dubious morality of the murder victim was a little more dubious than in the standard Hollywood product of the censor-ridden 1940s. There’s also a slight concession to Hollywood by casting popular character actor Barry Fitzgerald as the crusty older detective on the case. Still, it’s hard to fault his handling of the role. The only problem is that he’s so identifiably a Hollywood actor that his very presence distracts from the reality of the film’s tone.
What really sets The Naked City apart is the city itself—New York—which is more the star of the film than any of the actors. At this late date, it also affords the viewer a look at a type of city life that has long since disappeared, giving the film a kind of documentary time-capsule flavor. Oddly, for so ground-breaking a movie, The Naked City is fairly rarely seen, and is known today mostly for narrator-producer Mark Hellinger’s closing line, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them”—a phrase that followed the film when the concept was turned into a TV series 10 years later. Unfortunately, Hellinger himself didn’t live to see the success of the film, dying of a heart attack before it was released, while Dassin would find himself on the House Un-American Activities Committee black list a few years later, as would co-screenwriter Albert Maltz. Perhaps those are merely three more of the eight million stories, but it’s ironic that three of the men responsible for reshaping filmmaking never fully benefited from their pioneering efforts.