March 10, 1948: “Naked City” opens in Los Angeles. Credit: Los Angeles Times
Several years ago, when Kim Cooper of the 1947project and I were briefly discussing a book, I did some research on film noir, particularly “Naked City,” the last movie by producer Mark Hellinger, who died Dec. 21, 1947, at the age of 44. At one point, I went through microfilm of old issues of American Cinematographer to see how World War II had changed the movies.
Reading the 1947-48 Cinematographer articles was a profound experience because they strip away all the layers of over-intellectualized, uber-aesthetic, DVD Web page claptrap that have been written about film noir over the years.
The motives and the causes were simple and easy to understand, and frankly most of them were workmanlike solutions to workmanlike problems: Crews had become accustomed to shooting on location — in combat or making training films — often with minimal lighting and small, 16-millimeter cameras.
There was also a strong emphasis on naturalism, with actual locations, real people and minimal makeup. One of the films that came out of this new perspective was “Naked City” for which William Daniels (d. 1970) won an Academy Award for black and white cinematography.
Here’s what I mean: The Cinematographer article on “Naked City” from 1948. Everything that Daniels (often described as “Garbo’s photographer”) did was for the simple reason of telling a story, with minimal lighting, real locations and crowds of actual New Yorkers. Even the majority of the cast had little previous exposure on film.
Notice one other hallmark of the film noir in “Naked City”: The movie is narrated, though not by one of the characters (like Walter Neff in “Double Indemnity” or Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard”) but an external observer, Hellinger.
Photo: Mark Hellinger and Jules Dassin during production of “Naked City.” Credit: American Cinematographer
By Herb A. Lightman, American Cinematographer, May 1948.
THESE are words in praise of a man and a motion picture. The man is the late Mark Hellinger — and the picture is his last and best film, “The Naked City,” now in release by Universal-International.
It is hard for cold words on paper to pay tribute to the intensely human personality of Mark Hellinger. To those of us who were fortunate enough to know him, he always seemed more like a symbol than a mere mortal. He personified The Big City, the brashness of the prohibition era, the “stop-the-presses” school of journalism. Like his contemporary, the late Damon Runyon, he was a bard of the modern age -a chronicler of the complex, urban, sometimes-hysterical 20th Century in America.
His short stories, of which he wrote one a week for many years, were savory slices of life, jacked with humor and pathos and the emotions of just plain people. He wrote of the “guys and the dolls,” the “bums and the molls.” His reputation as a “square guy” won for him the respect of government and police officials as well as that of New York’s supposedly most venomous underworld characters.
The mooring lines make dramatic diagonals in this shot, and the bollard blocks the view of the beating.
As a person, Hellinger was as genuine as a silver dollar fresh from the mint. His colorful vocabulary gave voice to a dynamic personality, and when he talked you hung on every word-no matter what the subject: His words were plain, and sometimes profane-but they were rich and warm and descriptive, and there was heart in them. It was natural that his particular brand of genius should find expression in the dramatic medium of the motion picture. For the past several years a Hollywood producer, he was just beginning to hit his best stride with pictures like “The Killers,” “Brute Force,” and now “The Naked City.” His passing though a great personal loss to those of us who knew him as a friend — is an even greater loss to a motion picture industry which, at the moment, sorely needs the original, vital, and human touch which he brought to the screen.
East Side, West Side
Mark Hellinger was a clever short story writer, an imaginative film producer but first and foremost, he was a good reporter. He was happiest when chasing down a hot news story, the kind of yarn that millions of people would read next morning while gulping their coffee or hanging from a subway strap. He had a favorite stomping ground, New York City — and he loved it with a faithful passion, just as a Frenchman loves the boulevards of Paris, or an Irishman loves the emerald hills of Erin. It is fitting, then, that his last picture should be a newspaper story on film, with New York City as its locale.
That “The Naked City” was a labor of love is evident from the moment the opening scene appears on the screen. There are no credits, no title, no lettering of any kind — just an aerial shot of Manhattan at dawn. Then, Hellinger’s voice is heard on the sound track explaining that this is the story of a day in New York. He speaks just as he would speak to a crony down at Joe’s Bar and Grill, commenting on the urban scene with simple, direct and richly descriptive words. We see the great city struggling to wakefulness — yawning, sitting up and rubbing its eyes.
Then we see the milk-man making his rounds, the crowds rushing for the subway, the wheels of urban commerce slowly beginning to turn. Finally, settling down to the crux of the narrative, the camera noses its way through the window of a hotel room where a young woman is being slowly and systematically strangled by two thugs.
From that point on, the camera goes behind the scenes to show the step-by-step unraveling of the mystery by a venerable detective (played by Barry Fitzgerald ) and his young assistant (played by Don Taylor).
But to say that “The Naked City” is just another whodunit, is to make a brazen understatement, for the crime itself and its ultimate solution is secondary to the background against which it is portrayed.
The film is primarily a story of New York; not the New York the tourists see when herded about from Rockefeller Center to Chinatown by harassed guides wishing for an easier way to make a living. It is not even the New York of the native Gothamite, grown (like the tree) in Brooklyn — or born and bred in the shadow of Manhattan’s spires.
It is the New York of the police reporters, those unsung worshipers of the typewriter who exist from deadline to deadline. Behind the graphically journalistic, often staccato, approach of the camera, one can see the Mark Hellinger of fifteen years ago doggedly following up the story of a socially insignificant young woman who was strangled and left floating in a bath-tub full of water.
It is the kind of everyday murder you read about in the front page headlines and forget by the time you’ve turned to the comic page. And yet, projected as it is against the backdrop of a reporter’s Manhattan, it becomes documentary drama — and intensely stimulating screen-fare.
Howard Duff as Frank Niles and Dorothy Hart as Ruth Morrison in “Naked City”
The Soul of the City
Jules Dassin, who directed the film, is, like Hellinger, a native New Yorker. His understanding and affection for the sprawling metropolis underscores the flawless technique he has used in etching the story’s action onto celluloid. He has captured the sprightly pace so typical of Manhattan, the sordid claustrophobia of the lower East Side. He has blended realism and drama into a perfectly balanced narrative that fits neatly into its vast setting, but never becomes lost in it.
The picture is full of clever little directorial touches that are solidly in key with the atmosphere of the locale. The camera pauses to watch kids splashing about in noisy ecstasy under a street hydrant; it eavesdrops as a couple of stenographers press their noses against the window of an exclusive dress shop and wonder aloud (in wistful Brooklyn accents) as to how they would look in the particular creation on display. The little people who make up a great city are not shunted aside as so much atmosphere they are given a voice in the telling of the story, and what they say is important.
Of the three month shooting schedule allotted to the script, two and a half months were spent in New York where the greatest bulk of the action was filmed. As a result, all of the settings (including interiors) are absolutely authentic — a fact that is bound to delight New Yorkers at home and abroad. Unusual locales included the Williamsburg Bridge, the Bellevue Morgue, and the scaffolding of a building under construction twenty three floors above the street. The result is exactly what Mark Hellinger intended it to be: a film that shows New York as New Yorkers know it.
During the hour and a half running time of the film, the audience sees more of New York than it would see on a week’s sightseeing tour of the city. It is estimated that twenty billion dollars worth of “sets,” including Manhattan’s impressive skyline, make their appearance as backgrounds to the action. A record crowd of 200,000 spectators watched the street scenes being filmed.
Another tight location: Filming on an elevator at a building under construction.
Of the twenty-four featured roles in “The Naked City,” only four are portrayed by Hollywood actors. Twenty prominent parts were filled by New York radio and stage actors, most of whom were making their first screen appearances. The unstudied acting of these players is uniformly excellent, and the fact that their faces are not familiar adds greatly to the realism of the picture.
One of the more bothersome problems which director Dassin had to contend with was the crowds that gathered whenever the camera crew set up shop. Ropes were used to hold back the spectators, but when the mobs became unruly, a juggler was installed some distance away as a “decoy” to attract their attention. Further adding to the discomfort of the cast and crew was the fact that filming was done in June, July, August and September, during some of the hottest weather in New York’s history.
A dramatic close-up of Ted de Corsia during the famous chase sequence in “Naked City.”
The climactic sequence of the picture is a chase extending for a mile and a half between a tenement apartment on the East Side to the Delancy Street entrance of the Williamsburg Bridge. This is one of the longest and most difficult chase sequences ever attempted, and required three weeks of filming. It takes the audience through alleys, over fences, across a lot full of tombstones, and finally reaches its climax when the fugitive is cornered high up in one of the towers of the bridge. In order to line up this sequence along a quarter mile span of bridge, director Dassin used roller skates.
From the Camera Angle
William Daniels, A.S.C., whose outstanding work as Director of Photography on “The Naked City” is winning unanimous acclaim within the film industry itself, is a veteran of 30 years in the studios. Twenty-three of these were spent at M-G-M where he shot 92 features and became known as a top-notch “glamour” cinematographer. His realistic handling; of the photography in “The Naked City” is a complete about-face from the softly lighted, glossily diffused type of approach he used to employ as Garbo’s special cameraman.
Part of the chase leads through a lot full of tombstones in a sequence that took three weeks to shoot.
His work in the Hellinger film is a happy combination of dramatic composition and realistic lighting-coupled with the fact that he worked very closely with the producer and director in the preplanning stages as well as during actual production. He has nothing but respect for director Dassin because of the line co-operation he received and the free rein he was given in the selection of locales, camera angles and the establishment of mood through lighting. The unusual rapport which existed between these two technicians is evidenced by the smooth manner in which the photography complements the journalistic style of the action.
Don Taylor as Detective James Halloran in the final chase sequence of “Naked City.”
Director and cinematographer went to New York two months before shooting began in order to select locales that not only fit the story, but were also interesting from the photographic standpoint. Daniels was given final authority in the choosing of these backgrounds. Speaking of his overall approach to the film, he says: “We were after — well, let’s call it realism. I dislike the term ‘documentary’ because the word has come to mean badly shot 16mm. footage.
The camera truck appears to be faintly reflected in store windows in this shot.
In order no accentuate realism in his visual approach, Daniels photographed the actors without makeup. His lighting style was so simple as to be almost radical from the Hollywood production point-of-view. He had constructed at the studio portable metal frames into which could be screwed four ordinary RAP2 photoflood bulbs. These easily transported units not only added to the realistic style of the photography, but made it possible to shoot sequences in rooms that would not have accommodated any other type of lighting. The scenes in the tenement house, for example, were shot in a five by nine foot room. In many cases, ordinary building current was sufficient to run the lights, but two army surplus generators were taken along on location where more current was needed than could be furnished by local power facilities.
As has been pointed out, one of the major problems was to conceal the camera so that crowds of curious onlookers would not clutter up the composition. This was accomplished by means of a panel truck whose sides were actually two-way transparent mirrors. The cameraman shot through the mirrors without the subject even suspecting that he was being photographed. Because of the density of the mirrors, two full stops of increased exposure were required.
The dusk and night shots in “The Naked City” are especially well done and reflect a good deal of expert planning. Usually there was a period of only about ten minutes during dusk when such scenes could be photographed. The cameraman and not the director decided when the sky had developed just enough glow so that the buildings would stand out against it, and it was the cameraman who gave the signal for “Action!” when such scenes were being filmed. The sequence showing the mother and father of the murdered girl departing from the city was rehearsed all day long and shot with three cameras during five minutes of twilight when the sun starts to drop behind Manhattan’s skyline. On the screen, this sequence has a luminous quality that is very striking.
“Dexter Murder Solved!” … and the newspaper goes into the trash.
Nearly a quarter of a million feet of film was exposed during filming of the New York sequences, due to the unpredictable conditions under which shooting took place. Many famous buildings of the city were photographed for the last time, having since been demolished to make room for the United Nations building. The skyscraper shown to be under construction in one sequence is the new Universal-International building at 57th St. and Park Avenue. These scenes were shot atop a scaffold twenty-three stories above the street and the director, cameraman and stars had to ride the material hoist in order to get and ascending shot called for in the script.
Photographically and directorially “The Naked City” rates with the best films of the year. But it is more than an interesting evening at the theatre. It is a tribute in celluloid to Mark Hellinger, a swell guy.
June 17, 1970: Services for cinematographer William H. Daniels at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale.