Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Naked City

The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948) [6]
When I was at the University at Buffalo, I took a class on narrative theory and film, based heavily on the work of Genet. I first saw this film there and while not explicitly dealing with Genet's theories, this film is most notable for its unique voice-over narration. That's also it's biggest flaw; producer Mark Hellinger's narration is partly omniscient, partly opinion, and part analysis. It's kind of winking knowledge that this is a film and what the character's have to do is just too overtly done for me. The only interesting aspect, which doesn't get done nearly enough, is when the narration flows into characters' minds, mostly the residents of New York. Narration is only one part of the story. The film, directed by noted noir director Jules Dassin, is practically the anti-noir. It's a standard police procedural, which I find relatively staid and boring, and the mystery here, while entertaining, is just standard. The film tracks the murder investigation of a young woman as we follow the detectives as they slowly unwind the whole story. What raises the film above just another procedural is that the film was shot mostly in New York City, which was rarely done in the 40s. It adds a vibrancy and authenticity that otherwise would have been missing and frankly, not made the film any good. Being outside of Hollywood sets allows Dassin and cinematographer William Daniels to capture a grittier film, rooted heavily in Italian neo-realism. The film takes more chances visually, moves the camera more, than just about any film of the time that I've seen. Sadly, that can't take away from some glaring issues, the narration being first. Also, I'm a little concerned with the way ethnicity are portrayed. It all comes down to too much stereotyping, notably Barry Fitzgerald as the somewhat loopy Irish cop. That's relatively harmless as his character is actually more than competent in his work. The problems I raise comes from the film's end, as it descends into the Lower East Side, with its melting pot of Jews, Italians, Chinese, and whatever other divergent cultures of WASPy descent. It's a setting and its characters so much defined as being "the other" that it feels unauthentic and too much a product of Hollywood typecasting and stereotypes. It's a shame because what could have been a very good film gets tripped up by its auxiliary elements.

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