Before there was Kojak, before there was Dragnet, there was The Naked City. Shot against the gritty backdrop of a sweltering New York City, this film noir classic had a huge influence on many of the crime dramas that came after it.
The movie is based on a story by Malvin Wald who later wrote scripts for TV shows such as Peter Gunn and Perry Mason. It opens with a documentary-style montage in which the narrator underscores that filming took place on the streets of New York and not some Hollywood backlot, “This is the city as it is. Hot summer pavement, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people without makeup.” The narrator then sets the stage by walking us through little vignettes of New York night life, during which we witness the murder of a Manhattan socialite named Jean Dexter.
From here the movie goes into high gear as chief detective, Daniel Muldoon, leads his team of street-smart investigators on the hunt for Dexter’s killers. Muldoon is played by Irish actor, Barry Fitzgerald, who is probably best known for his performance as the tipsy town matchmaker in John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Don Taylor (Stalag 17) stars as Muldoon’s apprentice, Jimmy Halloran – a young, up-and-comer in NYPD’s homicide division who is eager to tackle his first big case.
Unlike some crime dramas from that era, the script makes liberal use of wit and humor to give characters a more three-dimensional feel. We’re also given little peeks into the private lives of Muldoon and Halloran. These brief interludes are primarily intended to make us care about our protagonists, but they do more than that. They remind us that these cops aren’t superheroes. They are just regular Joes doing a tough job in a big city.
One member of the cast that frequently upstages all others is the City itself. This is entirely due to the masterful cinematography of William H. Daniels who won an Academy Award for his work on the picture. Seeing New York City through his lens is what sets this movie apart and gives it its edge. If you have ever considered dipping a toe in the inky depths of film noir, The Naked City is a great place to start. Not only is it one of the best examples of the genre, you’ll find it’s one of the most accessible, too.