Jules Dassin’s Academy Award-winning crime drama breaks new ground in New York City
The Naked City (1948) was a highly influential crime fiction movie of its day, boasting William Daniels’ impressive cinematography and introducing a number of innovations to the genre. It was also the first Hollywood production to be shot entirely on the streets of New York City, effectively using Manhattan and the outlying districts as a character unto itself.
Crime journalist Mark Hellinger’s new production unit decided to produce a film based on Naked City, a sensational 1945 anthology of street photographs and crime scenes from New York photographer Weegee. Director Jules Dassin led a deep cast each step of the way through a homicide investigation, almost in a documentary fashion.
The semi-documentary begins with the murder of a young woman, Jean Dexter. Barry Fitzgerald plays Lieutenant Detective Dan Muldoon, the officer in charge of the investigation. Dexter was a model and her death becomes the main gossip of the entire city, fodder for the newspaper headlines. The New York City Police methodically investigate her death.
The Naked City’s noir tendencies are kept in check by the very unusual narration, more commonly found in documentaries of the period. Many of the elements commonly found in today’s police procedurals can be traced to its innovations, properly portraying police tactics for the first time in Hollywood. The air of authenticity grounds the murder mystery in a way lacking from more fictionalized noir films.
Before The Naked City, Hollywood had mostly filmed movies in California for cost reasons. Cinematographer William Daniels would end up winning the Academy Award for brilliantly shooting New York City in this film. The city is such an important part of the narrative, it provides the primary context for everything that happens in the murder investigation. Some of The Naked City’s original appeal is probably lost on modern audiences. When it first hit theaters, most of the country’s population outside of New York weren’t familiar with how the great metropolis actually looked. The Naked City provides an intimate and up-close experience with the streets of New York in 1948. The camera dwells on the city’s sights, letting everyone across the country get a glimpse of the bustling street life. Audiences in Iowa at the time would have been fascinated by the images.
The Naked City was an unusual film for its time, one that ended up with many of its signature traits becoming so prevalent in later films and television. In fact, ABC eventually turned it into a television series in the 1950s. That is why what was once considered daring in it has become common and routine. The hard-boiled police drama has enough of a mystery to keep audiences entertained, even today.
British distributor Arrow Video borrows Criterion’s HD transfer for this BD, turning out fairly nicely for a black-and-white movie from 1948. Using the best available archival materials from MGM, Criterion’s film transfer produces very good PQ results. Properly framed in its native 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the award-winning cinematography holds up quite well.
Arrow Video always includes a top-notch video encode and The Naked City is no exception. The 95-minute main feature gets its own BD-50, leading to a stellar AVC video encode averaging nearly 35 Mbps. Needless to say, it perfectly replicates every inch of the presumed 2K film scan in gorgeous fidelity.
The surprisingly crisp cinematography has sharp definition and excellent depth. Most importantly for a black-and-white movie, there is a dearth of strobing in the contrast and it contains nearly immaculate black levels. The excellent gray-scale renders superb shadow delineation and average detail.
The unrestored film elements, most likely the camera negative, shows minor wear. No one spent millions photochemically restoring it, but overall its condition is generally fine. A few running scratches have been left intact, though they aren’t serious enough to warrant any real concern. I don’t think they should bother most viewers. A hint of sharpening can be detected, though the transfer is largely film-like in its grain structure. This is not a heavily filtered film transfer. Criterion is usually pretty good about avoiding serious changes to a movie’s natural appearance.
The original monaural sound is presented in a very good 1.0 PCM soundtrack. The sound fidelity is clean and crisp, mastered with light compression and extended dynamic range. All dialogue is intelligible and nicely mixed in balance with the score. While the mono sound has some limitations in impact, this is a quality recording kept in fine preservation over time.
Arrow Video includes optional English SDH subtitles.
The commentary by writer Malvin Wald is a bit self-serving for my tastes, but it is always welcome to hear input from someone associated so closely with a film this old. The included booklet features excellent pieces on a variety of related subjects to the film, providing the necessary context lost on modern audiences. They are definitely worth reading for further background. This Dual-Format edition includes a DVD version of the movie as well.
- Audio commentary by screenwriter Malvin Wald – Wald takes a lot of credit in this commentary for almost everything that later became popular from The Naked City. He does lose steam by the end, largely discussing what is happening on screen.
- Jules Dassin at LACMA (52:00 in 1080i) – A 2004 interview with Bruce Goldstein in which the director discusses his career.
- The Hollywood Ten (14:43 in upscaled HD) – A 1950 documentary short on the ten filmmakers blacklisted from Hollywood for their refusal to name names before the House of Un-American Activities, including The Naked City’s co-screenwriter, Albert Maltz
- Gallery of production stills by infamous photojournalist Weegee (01:06)
- Theatrical trailer (01:51 in upscaled HD)
- Reversible sleeve featuring the original poster and newly commissioned artwork by Vladimir Zimakov
- 33-page collector’s booklet – Containing new writing on the film by Alastair Philips, Barry Salt and Sergio Angelini, illustrated with original production stills.
- Trailers for Brute Force and Rififi in upscaled HD.
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.
Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.