“The Naked City” (1948) is a police procedural based in 1940s New York. Although it’s the story of the police investigation into the murder of the beautiful, young Jean Dexter, it’s told against the backdrop of life in the city. So, for example, we see the city waking up, people commuting into Manhattan, before we see Dexter’s maid finding her body in the bathtub. We hear the (humorous) dialogue between two women looking at fashions in the window of the dress shop where Dexter works before moving inside to watch the police interviewing people who knew her. It provides a sense of life going on for everyone else — sometimes even the cheap titillation people get out of gossiping about murder — while the investigators go about their business of finding out why Dexter’s life ended.
Filmed in black and white, the movie drew inspiration from a collection of photographs by Arthur Fellig, placed in sequence to depict the flow of life in New York. “There are 8 million stories in the naked city,” the narrator famously concludes; “This has been one of them.”
Directed by Jules Dassin, “The Naked City” is primarily art — it won an Academy Award for cinematography — but it’s also crime fiction. The police investigation is depicted in detail, showing one officer pounding the pavement with the narrator describing how many blocks he must walk between interviews, showing one suspect repeatedly lying and then trying to charm his way out trouble, and showing parents who believe that the bright lights of the city are to blame. And there’s Lt. Dan Muldoon, the scrappy veteran officer who’s seen it all and isn’t surprised by any of it.
Although the mystery wasn’t particularly original, the style of the film and its efforts to contextualize the case within the life of the city kept me entertained until the closing scenes, which are easily the most exciting part of the story.