© 1948 Hellinger Productions

The Naked City (1948)

Although his name does not appear anywhere in the credits, The Naked City is very much indebted to Weegee, the news photographer who captured unflinchingly realistic photographs of New York, its people, and its crimes. Either a police officer or the secretaries at the Acme Newpictures office, depending on which account you go by, gave the Ukranian-American photographer his nickname, a phonetic spelling of the Ouija boards that were all the rage at the time. Like the spiritual game, Weegee seemed to be able to predict the future, often arriving at crime scenes with his camera before the police. He would often claim his elbow would itch before something newsworthy would happen. In actuality, Weegee kept police and fire department shortwave radios in his one-room apartment at number 5 Centre Market Place, lower Eastside Manhattan, with speakers suspended above his bed where he slept fully dressed with his shoes on. When the radios broadcast news a fire, shooting, or holdup, he would often leave via the fire escape and rush to the scene.  His most famous photograph is “Gunman Killed by Off-Duty Cop at 344 Broome Street” (February 3, 1942), which shows a dead thug, bloody face to the sidewalk, with his revolver resting on the sidewalk in front of him.

But Weegee’s  photographs were not only of crimes. He loved every aspect of life in Manhattan, and took many pictures of revelers in bars and children, including a shot of a family of six sleeping on a fire escape on a hot summer night. Weegee gave his adopted hometown a nickname of its own, “The Naked City,” which he also used at the title of a collection of his photos published in 1945. The appellation was never meant to be one of derision.  Playwright William McCleery, in his forward to the book The Naked City said of Weegee, “he will take his camera and ride off in search of new evidence that his city, even in her most drunken and disorderly and pathetic moments, is beautiful.”

Film producer Mark Hellinger bought the rights to the book title, although Weegee was unfortunately not brought on in any capacity as a technical advisor. Hellinger also started out as a New York tabloid newspaper man before moving into film production, and described the project as his “own personal love letter to New York” Hellinger, who narrates the film, died of a sudden heart attack just after the film was completely. Not sure how to market the picture, Universal was ready to shelve it until Hellinger’s family pointed out that they were contractually obligated to release it. Universal was pleasantly surprised to see it turn into a major hit and win two Oscars. Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film for The New York Times, wrote that the movie is “a virtual Hellinger column on film” and went on to say “the late Mark Hellinger’s personal romance with the City of New York was one of the most ecstatic love affairs of the modern day…Mr. Hellinger went for Manhattan in a blissfully uninhibited way — for its sights and sounds and restless movements, its bizarre people and its equally bizarre smells. ”

The film version of The Naked City starts in a similar way that Hitchcock would begin Psycho 12 years later, beginning with a panorama of a city, and zooming in, zooming in, zooming in, until we focus on a single story, a single crime.  Hellinger’s voice over informs the audience that the film they are about to see was not filmed in a studio. “This is the city as it is. Hot summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people without makeup.”  We are introduced to the city at 1am on a hot summer night, and are shown brief glimpses of people earning their living at this hour. We hear the thoughts of a cleaning woman mopping the floor of a bank, “sometimes I think this world is made up of nothing but dirty feet.” A newspaperman hunched over typewriter muses “it is wonderful working on a newspaper. You met such interesting people.” A DJ working alone at a radio station complains to himself, “You put on a record, you take it off, you put on another. Does anyone listen to this program except my wife?” What we are witnessing is the subjects of Weegee’s photograph, normally frozen in time, being given a voice.

The central story of the film follows the police while they investigate the murder of a beautiful woman, a former model, who was killed in her apartment, from which her expensive jewelry also went missing. The plot is pretty standard film noir fare, but the fact that everything was shot on location, which the introductory narration made so clear, and a lot of grit and vibrancy, which is other films of the genre was little more than clever camera tricks.

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