Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Naked City (1948)

Finally saw this film after reading much about it, and I have to admit I was rather disappointed in it. I heard that it was based on a photo spread by Weegee detailing New York crime scene photos, and that it was shot entirely on location in the streets and apartments of New York. For some reason, I have also heard this film frequently touted as one of the best film noirs, though I couldn't see anything in it that resembled any of the characteristics of noir.

My biggest disappointment was that it opened with that terrible narration (by the producer, no less) that the better filmmakers were already trying to avoid at that point. It's that smarmy, cutesy narration that ruins the atmosphere. I would have found a Sterling Hayden-type voice much more appropriate if narration were needed at all, which I'm not actually sure it was-it appeared at times that the narration was only used to further the story when the filmmakers had to shoot without sound because of the locations (mostly the exteriors).

Barry Fitzgerald (whom I love) was good but seemed entirely out of place. He would have seemed much more "at home" in a studio-bound Hollywood film, in which his slightly exaggerated performance would have felt much more natural. As it is, he comes across as giving far too much a "performance" when the gritty setting seems to call for a more naturalistic performance. The rest of the cast is okay, not particularly memorable, although some of the performances (especially the housekeeper of the murder victim, who bursts into tears every five minutes) seem entirely over-the-top, and again, at odds with the film's more naturalistic settings. There's also an annoying tendency to insert cute and comical relief bits that add nothing to the film and only seem unnatural and forced, further killing the effect that the film was supposedly striving for.

I've read that Stanley Kubrick worked as a still photographer on this film, and I can't help but think what he could have done with the material (I've enjoyed his "Killer's Kiss" and "The Killing" very much).I wouldn't be so critical except that the film went out of its way to be something different but was so ordinary in every aspect other than its use of locations that it hardly seemed worth it. I would be very interested to know why this film is frequently cited as an example of film noir (it's a crime drama, yes, but really more along the lines of a "Dragnet"-style police instructional). I see that Criterion is releasing the film soon, and in their notes call it a benchmark of film noir too. Dassin's "Night and the City" (a genuine noir) is far superior, in my opinion.