The film begins with some unvarnished and rather startling violence, when a women is coldheartedly murdered in the middle of the night on the Upper East Side. The case falls into the lap of Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald), a diminutive Irish homicide lieutenant with a sort of muddled amiability and clever wit that predates Columbo by nearly thirty years. Muldoon and his team of flatfoots doggedly pursue their investigation, following lead upon lead, reaching dead-ends, and getting lucky a time or two. It's all solid police procedural, and the nature of the plot will feel familiar if you've ever seen an episode of Law and Order. And like that program, the movie's not afraid to get up close and offer quiet, desperate moments as when a mother is faced with the prospect of identifying her daughter's corpse at the city morgue.
The standout is, of course, the cinematography, for which the film won an Academy Award. There's plane shots over the city that are simply breathtaking, especially a view of the Empire State Building clearly towering over mid-town. And there's sequences involving crowded Lower East Side streets, packed subways and 5th Avenue shops, not to mention a climax on the Brooklyn Bridge, all of it real, each moment filled with true New Yorkers fifty years gone. It's all the more impressive when you consider the lack of backscreen projection, dolly and steadicam work. This was an on-location movie made in an era in which production wizards routinely turned California backlots into the teeming streets of Morrocco one week and the surface of Mars the next.
To its credit, The Naked City gave rise to a television show of the same name, and it's had an obvious influence on a score of police dramas, from Starsky and Hutch to Hill Street Blues and the aforementioned Law and Order (which owes some, if not all, of its existence to this film).
Granted, there's an intrusive, annoying voice-over narration done by none other than the film's producer, in an attempt to glue together some sloppy storytelling and editing during the opening. But The Naked City's daring approach to its photography, characters, casting, and ugly, thrilling climax, more than make up for it.
The real star of the picture is New York itself. The closing line, "There's eight million stories in the naked city, and this has been one of them," simultaneously demonstrates the conflicting, dual nature of the city. New Yorkers enjoy unique lives while living in a city so caught up with itself that it can, at times, give them a certain brutal anonymity. In the end, The Naked City captures the grandeur of the place while depicting its harsher realities in the same moments.
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