Framework: The Naked City

Jules Dassin’s 1948 NYC film noir is explored in our DIY film school series.

Framework is a year-long DIY film school; 52 essential films to expand your consciousness.

There is a certain undeniable energy that accompanies a film shot entirely on location in the city where it takes place. When this energy is combined with the stage of America’s most iconic metropolis, what emerges is a gritty portrait of true urban life.

The Naked City, directed by American noir authority Jules Dassin, was the first film in almost 20 years to be filmed entirely on location in New York City over the summer of 1947. Prior to Dassin’s investigative crime drama, filming on location in NYC had been dormant since the early 1930s, when the preference for Hollywood studios outweighed location production.

The Naked City, starring the Irish-born Barry Fitzgerald as Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon, takes to the streets of Manhattan to solve the murder of a beautiful New York model, who is found dead in her Upper West Side apartment. At first the motive is unclear and the suspects few, until the NY police department happens upon Frank Niles (Howard Duff).

Frank’s small-time crook habits allow the design of the film to take two parallel paths: the anatomy of working an urban murder case and the cross-town trek involved in scoring the city for evidence and witnesses. In trying to hide his involvement with the victim from the cops, Frank leads the NY police department on a wild goose chase that covers the city of Manhattan, allowing this work of police fiction to be seen through documentary eyes.

Although The Naked City is considered to be a noir film by a director who is known for this genre, Dassin uses little of the noir aesthetic in his execution of the film. The bulk of a typical film noir takes place at night, in darkly lit rooms that cast billowy shadows. The Naked City is a lighter film noir in the literal sense, as it takes place primarily during the day, and except for a few key locations, it is generally developed in the exterior world of New York. Ironically, the only drawback to the natural setting is the preference for narration and voice-dubbing over the ambient sound of the scenes.

Shortly after The Naked City was released, Jules Dassin was put onto the infamous Hollywood blacklist. In 1952, under political pressure, Dassin permanently moved his career to Europe. The Naked City is a work of art that should not only be cherished for its achievement in reviving the New York film scene, but as a symphony of a city through the vision of a man who was never allowed to work in it again. ■

The Naked City is part of the Criterion Collection and is available to rent at Boîte Noire and Le Septième in the east, Avenue Video in the west, and iTunes if you’re a homebody.

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