The Naked City (1948): One Out of Eight Million Stories

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The Naked City begins inauspiciously enough with a flyover of New York and an introduction by producer Mark Hellinger. It seems like we’ve seen this countless times before. It’s almost like a stock image. And yet in the case of this picture, it was really one of the forerunners of a movement.

Here we have one of the first pictures to give us a sense that this is only one story in a whole patchwork of stories. There’s a loose, stream of consciousness to the proceedings as we meet people and overhear their conversations only momentarily as they go along with their daily lives.

But initially, we are introduced to an entire cross-section of people in the dead of night when most are slumbering peacefully at home. Although the street corners, places of business, and entertainment hubs are still bustling. And of course, in other spaces, we have the murder. The topic of interest in this story.

We are afforded the same opportunity to get a view into the lives of our detectives, the bright-eyed veteran Lt. Daniel Muldoon portrayed by everyone’s favorite brogue-voiced leprechaun Barry Fitzgerald. Don Taylor comes on as the fresh-faced cop and family man taken under his wing. This is the picture that made me take note of his earnest talents as a dashing everyman.

Soon they are looking into the tragic death of a beautiful young model, Jean Dexter. Until it comes out there might be more too it than meets the eye. Also, another man’s body is fished out of the drink. For the time being, they are isolated events.

The Naked City is at its best giving this beat-by-beat rundown of the case as it happened. True, it’s a compromised documentation from director Jules Dasson;  it’s not like we’re watching a docudrama. All the same, it proves a fascinating cultural artifact giving us so many authentic pieces of context. It becomes a matter of parsing through the real footage taken on the streets and then actors going through the paces of a Hollywood storyline.

Not only does Mark Hellinger supply a certain ethos to the picture, he actually remains an important piece of the story, adding his own glib commentary in a one-way conversation with the actors who play a part of the case. A more tragic note is the fact the producer and one-time journalist would die before the picture was even released. But his crucial fingerprints on the narrative cannot be disregarded as the case pushes on.

There is Howard Duff as Frank Niles, a man whose reputation begins to falter with every word that comes out of his mouth and every subsequent question he dodges. Corroborating his facts, it becomes apparent he’s lying again and again to the authorities.

Even his fiance (Dorothy Hart), a model who worked with the deceased woman, is oblivious to many of his dubious activities. But certainly, he cannot be the murderer. He has an alibi. There must be another culprit. Muldoon settles on his old friend, “J.P. McGillicuddy,” a convenient placeholder for the unnamed perpetrator they’re trying to smoke out.

The work of a detective is never done as the dead girl’s parents come to identify the body and bemoan the fact their girl went bad after having such a tough childhood. There’s a pursuit of a fugitive down a fire escape that leads through the streets and reaches a dead end when he’s able to shake them aboard the subway. But they’re getting close to something.

Detective Halloran gets the go head to follow a hunch of his own — a long shot that becomes surprisingly relevant to their case — and the legwork leads to an elusive wrestler named Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia). However, as has a habit of happening, find one lead and a whole slew of others start falling in your lap. Things start happening.

They involve Niles, who of course, has been up to more than he was comfortable divulging. Also implicated are a doctor and Garzah as well. The others know they have been caught red-handed, but what is a police procedural without one final showdown? The chase for Willie Garzah takes off and finally finds him on a bridge climbing for his life as the police flood the area.

The final outcomes are not altogether unexpected but the fact New York plays such a concrete role in this drama greatens its appeal, and it helped develop a tradition, an affection even, for on-location shooting in The Big Apple.

Fittingly, everything is wrapped with those indelible words that would become immortalized on television forever, “There are eight million stories in New York City. This has been one of them.” It really is a producer’s dream for a serialized television show, but in its day it made a darn good crime movie too.

4/5 Stars

Thieves’ Highway (1949): Apple Crates and Femme Fatales

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Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) makes a joyous homecoming to his parents after literally traveling the seven seas, armed with boxes of gifts to lavish upon them. In a matter of minutes, we already have a warm feeling and an affection, however cursory, for these characters we have just met.

With money to spare and a pretty girl (Barbara Lawrence) just waiting to marry him, it really does seem he doesn’t have a care in the world. However, he’s rudely awakened when he entreats his father to put on a pair of moccasins. The old man becomes dour for the first time and confesses he no longer has use of his legs.

It seems like a major reveal for the boy not to know, but it nevertheless gives traction to the forthcoming story. Mr. Garcos used to be a truck driver and yet one fateful evening, he took a load of tomatoes to San Francisco. Far from getting paid, he found himself receiving a vocal I.O.U. and getting into an accident late at night under dubious circumstances. One has to admit he’s a kindly man but a bit of a pushover.

While it doesn’t begin as a revenge story, Thieves Highway’ certainly becomes one as Nick looks to not only get his father’s money and clean up the mess left behind but also get even because its pretty obvious foul play was involved.

First things first, he looks to buy his father’s truck back, from a shifty old pro named Ed Kenny (Millard Mitchell). Instead, they wind up going into business together ready to carry the season’s first load of Golden Delicious apples to try and make a killing. With the other man’s know-how and Garcos youth and tenacity, they just might make out. Soon they’re caravanning up to San Francisco to cash out on their load. It seems simple enough, but such a journey never is.

Richard Conte fits seamlessly into this role that capitalizes on his versatility in playing both heroes and villains. Because while we can label Nick our protagonists, he exhibits violent tendencies only visible in noir films where the dividing line between good and bad is often inconsequential.

Valentina Cortese plays Rica, the hooker with a heart of gold who is initially paid $100 to lure Garcos away from his truck. If it’s totally a stereotype — she is an apple crate femme fatale if you will — then Cortese still manages to play the mixture of sensuality and genial warmth in a manner that makes us care for her as an individual. Because she gives us a couple hints, suggesting a character with more good than bad — someone who is in a tough bind, yet still out looking for goodness and love to welcome into her life.

If Rica is the embodiment of an opportunist getting their chance at redemption, Mike Figglia is pure deceitfulness. Lee J. Cobb played sour apples before but Figglia is just about as ruthless as any of his boisterous antagonists. He is a trenchant embodiment of crooked free-market industry. There is no integrity to him and even less humanity as he strives to swindle his way to one dishonest buck after another. It’s not simply survival of the fittest but the roost is literally ruled by those who have no sense of rectitude whatsoever. They absolutely relish sinking other people for their own gain.

Thieves’ Highway had its predecessors in the likes of They Drive by Night (1940), coincidentally taken from a story written by this film’s screenwriter. However, though it has its own gritty Warner Bros. elements, it’s nevertheless a studio lot entry. John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) as well, while more of a migrant story, shows us the merciless side of cutthroat capitalism.

Just to get to the marketplace takes a lot of winding roads. There are bribes stuck up tailpipes, Garcos jacks up his truck with the back of his neck, and the worst for Kinney involves his ride continuously conking out. All for the sake of a truckful of apples.

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Simultaneously, two vultures (Jack Oakie and Joseph Peveney) in a truck of their own, are ravenously following Kinney as his own vehicle moans and wheezes its way toward its final destination. If time is money, he’s losing cash value fast and everyone knows it.

Still, the young newcomer has done pretty well for himself. He’s not taking any flack from Figlia, and he comes out of the shrewd operator’s office with $500 and a $34000 check. It sounds good, but it’s already a red flag. Because we know something’s going to happen to that valuable piece of paper. We just know it.

Sure enough, the story takes a devastatingly fatalistic nose dive on both Nick and Kinney’s end of the story. It’s a film literally chewing up and spitting out its protagonist.

A truck decimated. A hillside covered with busted apple crates. Then, back in the market a big fat nothing. There’s a sense of helplessness even as despondency sets in. Surely, this cannot be worth it? And yet Garcos somehow pulls himself together instead of rolling into a ball. Because he has an injustice to rail against and the perfect target is Mike Figlia.

One can quibble over whether or not it is neutralized by a slightly gushy ending — noir is certainly at its most mordant in the pits of despair — but there is still much to recommend in Thieves’ Highway.

Director Jules Dassin is one of the prominent names in post-war noir, because he made the genre not simply stylistic but imbued it with real-world grit, palpable for different reasons. Because we feel it and could see roadways and back alleys that get closer to reality than the studios ever could on their backlots.

For those familiar with the real San Francisco, Thieves’ Highway authentically embodied the robust produce industry set up within the city, detailing the area formerly adjacent to the Embarcadero, not mention more images of Oakland Produce Market.

It’s the kind of immersive imagery you can’t begin to fake in a convincing manner, and it adds another fascinating accent to this picture. Because not only is it a story with heady themes of revenge, but it’s planted in cold hard historical reality. Films at their best provide such documentation.

4/5 Stars

Review: Night and The City (1950)

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I’m not sure why but like Tommy Udo, the name Harry Fabian always stays with me when I think of Richard Widmark. One is the apex of sadistic evil and the other an archetypical noir hero met with utter calamity.

It’s true that for those who know a bit of the oeuvre of American director Jules Dassin, Night and the City might be perceived as a new rendition of The Naked City (1947). However, instead of New York, the suburban jungle of a thousand stories captured in documentary-like realism, we are given instead London, in all of its seedy glory, warts and all.

It’s fitting we meet Harry Fabian on the run from some unseen pursuer and whether someone is there or not hardly matters because that’s just Harry. The life he leads means he’s always in a jam with someone and always looking for the next big scheme to get him out of the doghouse. One might say he knows the dives of London like the back of his hand. He frequents them often trying to drum up business.

Because Harry is Widmark certainly at his most charismatic, an artist without an art and a constant idea man floundering in hot water every minute of the day. Like all such figures, he aspires to be something more than what he is. We’ve seen it many times before. For no conceivable rational reason except love, Mary (Gene Tierney), a nightclub singer, has remained faithfully by his side, despite all his flaky tendencies.

The mad chemist cooking upstairs also proves to be a pretty nice guy who cares deeply about Mary’s well-being. Especially since it seems that she is so easily tossed around by Harry. He doesn’t seem to care for her well. In fact, if we can cast it as such Harry is the Homme Fatale, even a slightly sympathetic one, while Adam (Hugh Marlowe) is his utter contrast in every way — the man who seems to have nothing but Mary’s goodwill in mind, even if he is in love with her too.

“The Silver Fox” is an underground tavern with some small consequence to the plot. Because you see, under the grubby hands of portly Phil Nosseross and his opportunistic and manipulative wife (Googie Withers), Harry works a hustle.  He drums up business like an all-purpose promoter, fishing around for unsuspecting out-of-towners and worming his way into their confidence. Meanwhile, Mary remains the main attraction with a floor show. They do quite well. Mary has scrimped and saved a great deal but Harry is still unsatisfied. It’s all small potatoes.

He’s waiting for the next great lightning rod of inspiration to strike and of all places, it comes at the fights. A big-time promoter (Herbert Lom) tells him to keep away because he’s already profiled Fabian as a no-good scrounger who cannot be trusted. He’s not wrong. However, Harrys a quick wit when he needs to be, instantly gaining the favor of formerly renowned wrestler Gregorius.

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Not only is he disillusioned with the way that modern wrestling bouts are fought, he also has a young pupil named Nikolai who he deems can take on any man. What makes his stamp of approval stick is the very fact the old man happens to be Kristos’s dearly beloved father. If Harry has this formidable ally in his corner he’s got it made.

Soon all the cash he can lay his greasy paws on is sunk in Fabian’s Promotions, even coaxing the boss’s conniving wife for a bankroll. He’s got his angle; he’s got his shield to help him shoulder his way into the wrestling game. It’s a cinch. But he’s also got everything riding on this endeavor because that’s his game. Go big and risk the chance of falling flat on his face.

So with Kristos all but threatening his life and a scorned husband pulling out his backing unless Harry can land The Strangler (Mike Mazursky), a competitor Gregorius has little taste for, that’s the end. The utter elation is Harry pulling a miracle out of his hat for the fight of a lifetime but just as easily the rug gets pulled from under him. Fate is a cruel taskmaster.

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Now a price sits on his head which essentially means he’s a dead duck. His dreams of success evaporate instantly. In the latter stages of the film, Widmark scrambles around London down all the back alleyways and abandoned brickyards he can. But everything he does seems futile. He has no friends with that much money at stake. The irony is that even Harrys last foolproof scheme doesn’t take when he pretends Mary is turning him over to Kristos for the cash. It wasn’t to be. For their love or for Harry. Noir is nothing without a heavy dose of fatalistic tragedy to become its ultimate undoing. Night and the City is little different.

As the story goes, Jules Dassin would be blacklisted during the production of the picture and therefore had no hand in the editing or scoring, at least to his liking. Thus, we have two distinct cuts. Otherwise, after a rough patch stricken by the Blacklist, he got back to work in France with the deeply revered Riffifi (1955). His career would have a second life all throughout Europe, yes, but for all intent and purposes, his days of hardboiled American noirs were over for good. All in all, he left behind a stellar body of work during the late 1940s. Night and the City remains a testament to a perennially underrated director.

4/5 Stars

Note: I watched the British version with a score by George Frankel opposed to a different American cut with slightly different footage and score by Franz Waxman.

Brute Force (1947)

BruteForceImage873Potentially one of the weaker Jules Dassin films noir, Brute Force is still a worthwhile film exploring the dynamics of a prison during the 1940s. The inspiration comes from the rebellion at Alcatraz in 1946 and this film was shocking at the time for the amount of violence it portrayed. It stars Burt Lancaster as the glowering leader of a group of prisoners in block K17. His main antagonist and the villain of the entire yard is the authoritarian Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn in an especially icy role).

The story follows the inmates as they make due with prison life and bide their time waiting for parole. However, Joe Collins, who is fresh off a spell of solitary confinement, seems bent on escape. The prison warden is an older fellow struggling to keep tempers from boiling over. The likable but often inebriated doctor (Art Smith) can see the writing on the wall. Things are reaching the end of the line if Munsey continues to hike up his tactics that are making the men resent him more and more every day. It’s positively a powder keg and it’s not going to be a pretty sight if the pressures get to be too much.

The entirety of the film takes place within the confines of the prison except for a couple flashbacks as four men recall the women they left outside in the real world. They are played by Anita Colby, Ella Raines, Yvonne De Carlo and Ann Blyth respectively, reflecting the hope, memories, and loved ones who are pulling at these men and ultimately led them to get into trouble. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but you might even be able to call them the femme fatales in an otherwise very male-centric film.

One man hangs himself afterward from Munsey and another gets it for causing problems for Joe. Neither of these men is looking to stand down anytime soon as Joe cautiously begins enacting plans of escape with another prisoner named Gallagher (Charles Bickford). Munsey continues to hound prisoners for information while halting all privileges.

Ultimately, the finale turns into the most electrifying moment of the film, while simultaneously Munsey is made the new warden and Collins puts his plan in action. Guards are waiting for him and his crew, but Gallagher has plans of his own in the compound. It leads to a handful of explosions, endless mayhem, and more than a few deaths. This is what happens when you use brute force.

4/5 Stars

The Naked City (1948) – Film-Noir

58f41-nakedcityposterDirected by Jules Dassin and starring Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, and Don Taylor, this documentary-style police procedural is an intriguing film. It begins with an omniscient narrator explaining the setting in New York. Soon we witness the aftermath of a murder. Then, we are following the detectives in Homicide as they try to follow the case. A beautiful model is dead and the suspects are few. Furthermore, they must figure out how stolen jewelry and a drowned man fit into the case. As Lieutenant Muldoon suspects, everything leads to an unknown culprit, a McGillicuddy. Little does the perpetrator know the police are closing in on him and it is only a matter of time. I found this film to be unique because of it’s narrator, semi-realistic approach, and relatable characters. On top of that the progression of the story was interesting and the ending sequence was entertaining. There truly are 8,000 stories in the Naked City. Enough to make a TV show.

4.5/5 Stars

Night and the City (1950) – Film-Noir

Set in London, this film directed by Jules Dassin stars Richard Widmark as a small time swindler and Gene Tierney as the girl he has his eye on. Harry Fabian always has big ideas but they never pan out. However, through a chance encounter he meets the father of the wrestling promoter in the area. He uses their strained relationship to his advantage in order to fight his way into the picture. At the same time a portly club owner and his unhappy wife are at odds partly because of Fabian. The con man’s luck takes a turn for the worst when the old man he met suddenly dies after a wrestling match. His son then puts a price on Fabian’s head and he becomes a wanted fugitive. One last time he sees his love and he has one last fool proof scheme. Fittingly that too falls through and he meets his demise. This is a very entertaining film and Widmark does a fine job.

4/5 Stars