A prototype for the procedural police dramas TV loves, 1948 whodunnit The Naked City offers a god’s eye view of a murder investigation during a week in New York City. Narrator Mark Hellinger (fittingly, also the producer) probes the lives of a cast including an Irish veteran cop (Barry Fitzgerald), his flatfoot, ex-GI protege (Don Taylor), the victim’s friends (Howard Duff and Dorothy Hart, with their own skeletons) and even the killer himself (Ted de Corsia). Hellinger frequently taunts the characters–Taylor chasing leads “in a city of 8 million people” (a recurring line); de Corsia attempting escape during a manhunt–functioning as an unseen voice in the back of their minds.
Beautifully shot by director Jules Dassin and cinematographer William Daniels, the movie is best when lingering on New York itself (where filming occurred). The city’s rhythm becomes important: wide shots of skylines at night, medium for daytime street life, closeups and interior scenes for plot, which starts deadpan and ends theatrically. The movie clocks in at a brisk 95 minutes despite the script leaning heavily on overacting and melodrama when ALL IS REVEALED! (showing where Law & Order got it from). Yet, there isn’t nearly the depth of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog–another, more personal window into post-war city life via crime drama. As funny as Hellinger’s commentary is, needling with doubt and futility, its sorta-moralizing distances audiences from the New Yorkers getting on with their lives between the lines of the script. Kurosawa invited empathy, both for his cops (Toshiro Mifune does Taylor’s role with much more dogged earnestness) and the killer (an unlucky washout played by Isao Kimura, a mirror to Mifune) while showing the harshness of life in Tokyo following Japan’s defeat. Even with on-location shots, there’s nothing as tactile in The Naked City as Stray Dog‘s summer heat.